Dec. 8 2014 06:40 PM

City takes a slow and careful approach to the public-art gem

Lead renovation artist Lech Juretko
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Volunteer docent Paul Seeley waits patiently outside the locked gates of "Queen Califia's Magical Circle" by international artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The iconic large-scale sculpture garden in Escondido's Kit Carson Park was once open to the public from sunrise to sundown every day except Monday and during heavy rains. But a decade of vandalism and wear and tear caused the city to close the garden in May 2013 while repair work was done.

"See, you can see some of the damage here," Seeley says, pointing to a cracked mirror and missing tiles as he leads a small group of people on a private tour through the garden.

Since September, the city has been cautiously reopening "Queen Califia" to supervised public access—first through appointment-only docent tours (appointments can still be made at 760-839-4519) and more recently by opening the sculpture garden every second Saturday of each month for visits supervised by city volunteers. This month, the garden will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13.

"The first thing I would say about the maintenance issues in the garden is that Niki was an artist, not an engineer," Seeley says, responding to a question about why the garden has cracked and deteriorated so noticeably. As for vandalism, he says the city built a fence and installed security cameras, but even local birds are partly to blame for continued destruction. "The vandals and culprits on that part up there are the crows; they like shiny things, and that's all Mother of Pearl."

A small crew of workers, including Lech Juretko—de Saint Phalle's right-hand man, who led the original construction of the piece—is busy with repairs, and the sound of drills often drowns out Seeley's tour talk. Escondido planner Jay Petrek says there's value in having the public see the renovation in progress during the garden's openings: It could help discourage future vandals. Once renovations are done, he says, the city will follow Zuretko's recommendations for proper upkeep.

Escondido's past maintenance of the sculpture garden has been widely criticized, especially in the wake of a report released last year by an independent art consultant hired by the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, which will pay for half of the repairs. The report detailed several issues, including use of recycled sewer water to clean the sculptures (distilled water was preferred) and broken security cameras.

"Without proper maintenance, nothing can last," Juretko says, taking a break from his repairs. "I just hate to redo stuff that is vandalized. I get really upset…. See over there, you can see someone tried to get that lizard's eye out with a hammer, and it's damaged. I already changed that eye five years ago. It's frustrating. I mean, come on. Who does that?"

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