The Tucson Botanical Garden (TBG) is a green oasis in central Tucson. Spring is a wonderful time to visit, the aloe alley is in bloom, the barrio garden bright with spring color, the world class cactus collection is flowering and the blue and white garden is flush with the new growth of herbs.
This spring is an especially good time to visit as TBG is hosting the New York Botanical Garden’s curated Frida Kahlo: Art, Life & Garden exhibition. Frida Kahlo is Mexico’s celebrated surrealist, self-portrait artist of the 20th century. Frida was an artist with a strong passion for indigenous plants, flowers, and animals and she incorporated them into her paintings. Frida married Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and from 1930-1954, Casa Azul and its surrounding garden in Mexico City was a center for their creative life. Even if you aren’t a fan of Kahlo’s before you go, after walking through this garden you are certain to gain a new insight into this remarkable person.
I first saw this exhibition in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory in the New York Botanical Garden. The four-tiered central pyramid built to scale of the Kahlo-Diego garden in Mexico City was recreated as the focal point. The bright blue and deep red (Frida Blue & Diego Red now commercially available paint colors) were accented by terra-cotta pots filled with cactus. Surrounding the base were masses of orange and yellow marigolds. Even though it was a substantial show It seemed lost and small within the soaring glass house.
Tuscon Botanical Garden is the only other site chosen to host this highly acclaimed exhibition and it comes to life examining how nature inspired her paintings. TBG stages a recreation of the garden of Frida and Diego. The central pyramid is surrounded by the Casa walls painted in the definitive red and blue. The cactus, the marigolds, jasmine, and white alyssum thrive under the filtered shade of the ironwood trees. A recreation of Frida’s painting desk looks over the garden. The child size Casa kitchen further defines the experience while giving the little ones a place to explore.
The entire garden seamlessly integrates Frida’s presence.The Cafe Botanica offers a lunch menu featuring some dishes found in a cookbook of Frida’s recipes, Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo written by Diego Rivera’s daughter. I tried and enjoyed the corn pudding which was part of her wedding lunch menu. The Kahlo menu is an idea developed to enhance the exhibition by Botanica’s local chef, Kristine Jensen.
The NYBG exhibition gathered a collection of Kahlo’s original works, loaned from private owners. The exhibition, worth millions, was highly secured and only available for that event. I was familiar with her self-portraits before I saw the exhibition, but I rarely gazed past her eyes. Her face stares intently out at you and it is hard to look more deeply into the painting. Yet just behind the self-portrait, she reveals her fascination with nature as she painted flowers, fruits, and her pets.
One of Frida’s signature emphasis was the celebration of Mexican folk art and indigenous traditions. She embraced the pre-Hispanic Meso-American heritage. Casa Azul was her childhood home and when she and Diego lived there they recreated the garden with native plants. Examples of these are identified at TBG by the chartreuse and purple signs throughout the garden.
She wore the traditional, colorful “Tehuana style of dress (that) emerged (from) the Tehuantepec region of South Mexico. Kahlo adopted this style, dressing in huipil tops and floor-length sweeping skirts, with bright floral prints, thick lace hems, and ribbon trims.” (The Fashion Codes of Frida Kahlo, 6/5/14, Mhairi Graham) Her self-portraits often included a crown of flowers in her hair. TBG hosts an exhibition of photo portraits taken by Nicholas Muray in the Porter House Gallery. It was in these portraits I realized her hair, braided with colorful ribbon, was crowned with intricately arranged fresh flowers. In one photo portrait there is a crown of bougainvillea, in another fuchsia blossoms are mixed with creamy orange lantana. From a docent tour, I learned it was a two-hour ritual for Frida to dress for the day and perhaps the flowers are part of the reason.
This exhibition expanded my understanding of her art and her as a person.Tucson Botanical Garden’s staging of this unique and special show is perfect in this garden. An original portrait of Frida was painted by contemporary portrait artist, David Conklin, to use in promotional materials. The portrait first appears in a large banner hanging from the wall of the new visitor’s center. Frida still stares out at you, but with a softer expression inviting you into her garden.
Executive Director, Michelle Conklin, enhanced the exhibition with a series of lectures highlighting significant aspects of historical, biographical, nature and textile contexts of Frida’s life. There is an exhibition of the winners of the annual Mexican Consulate Art Competition for 7-11-year-old Mexican expat children. This year’s theme was “My rights as a child” which celebrates universal cultural values.
All of these elements work beautifully together in this jewel of a garden. The TBG was just awarded recognition from the Canada Garden Tourist Council one of the top 10 gardens in North America to visit in 2017! Under Michelle’s leadership look for more exciting garden experiences.
Tucson Botanical Garden
2150 N. Alvernon Way, Tucson, AZ
5.5 acres,17 themed gardens
Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life exhibition
October 2016-Aug 31, 2017
Frida Photo Portraits by Nickolas Muray
Next up: Origami In the Gardens exhibit, at The Tucson Botanical, 16 larger than life sculptures