Frida Kahlo's influence means more color at Tucson Botanical Gardens
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Frida Kahlo's influence means more color at Tucson Botanical Gardens

Hummingbirds flit between bright red flowers at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, shaded by the newly painted lapis blue walls. This change in scenery is a part of the gardens’ new exhibition to honor the life, times and inspiration of artist Frida Kahlo.

The exhibit, “Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life,” is a re-creation of the garden outside Kahlo’s Mexico City home, nicknamed Casa Azul, as it appeared in the mid-20th century when Kahlo and her husband, painter Diego Rivera, lived there.

It was first developed and displayed at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx, New York, and became a blockbuster. In September of last year, Michelle Conklin, executive director of the TBG, received a call from a colleague at the New York gardens. New York’s grant for the exhibit included money for another small garden to show it. Would Conklin be interested in bringing the Frida show to Tucson?

Would she. Conklin flew out to New York in October, on the last weekend of the exhibit there. It covered much of the garden’s 250 acres, massive compared to the TBG’s 5½ acres. “I said I wanted everything,” Conklin recalls. “Every sign, every banner. The only things I couldn’t take were paintings and artifacts.”

The exhibit was packed into a big freight truck and brought to Tucson in January. Pima Community College housed it for TBG until August, when staff workers, volunteers and experts started pulling the exhibit together.

“The entire exhibit is really a labor of community involvement and love,” says Conklin.

She decided to expand on what New York had sent her.

“We felt that since our community is so diverse and has such a strong Mexican-American population, we wanted to do more than (the New York Botanical Gardens) did when it came to really celebrating the culture of Mexico,” Conklin says. “It feels like this exhibit was meant to be in Tucson and meant to be in our garden.”

In the first two days of the exhibit, the Botanical Gardens surpassed its highest recorded number of visitors with almost 1,000 people coming to explore the living art created by Kahlo and Rivera.

“It’s just been overwhelming,” says Conklin. “People have come from all over Tucson and across the country. People are coming in dressed up like Frida. Someone from Mexico came in who remembered Frida as a child.”

No art, just artistic inspiration

Visitors won’t see much of Kahlo’s artwork at the exhibit, though. Instead, they will be able to experience the surroundings and atmosphere that inspired her work.

“We’re not an art museum,” Conklin says. “We just don’t have that kind of space for a collection. Our exhibit is focusing not on the art of Frida Kahlo, but how plants and nature inspired her to create art.”

Interest in Kahlo is intense.

“Frida Kahlo is a phenomenon,” Conklin says. “Her story is so relatable to so many people in a lot of different ways. Whether you are a feminist, whether you are an artist, whether you are a poet, whether you are into fashion or into foods or just Mexican culture.”

The Botanical Gardens will continue to host its annual events such as Feast with the Dearly Departed and Luminaria Nights with added Kahlo-inspired extras. It will also hold 11 related lectures and monthly Frida Al Fresco cultural celebrations with after-hours food, music and even look-alike contests.

“This is really an institutional exhibit, so everywhere you go in the garden, you find a little bit of Frida,” Conklin says.

Putting it together

At the interior entrance of the TBG, a large doorway now stands, painted the vivid blue color that spans much of the garden.

The gardens staff worked with original designer Scott Pask, an Arizona native and Tony-winning scenic designer, and Pima Community College professors to match the exact color of the original Casa Azul. The trick was to find a true blue paint that has no black in it, according to Conklin.

Conklin used every bit of the 42 gallons of paint donated by Dunn-Edwards Paints to transform the garden walls, parts of the children’s garden, and some buildings into a part of Casa Azul.

The real Casa Azul still exists and now serves as a Frida Kahlo museum. It is one of the most visited places in all of Mexico City, according to TBG.

Close to the real thing

Through the doorway, visitors will find a field of marigolds encircling a replica of the Mesoamerican pyramid Rivera built for Kahlo to display their collection of Aztec sculptures as well as succulents and cactuses.

“Marigolds are very symbolic, especially for Day of the Dead,” Conklin says. “For one thing, aesthetically, we wanted a pop of color and historically, it fits so well. You can see marigolds in Frida Kahlo’s paintings. It felt like a real natural fit.”

Scientists and horticulturalists at the New York Botanical Gardens studied archival photographs to discover the plants that populated Kahlo’s home. The garden’s blue walls are lined with fence-post cactuses, yucca trees, succulents and mesquite trees, all of which would have been a part of Kahlo’s daily experience and inspiration, Conklin says.

Also accompanying the large pyramid is a replica of a mosaic fountain with inlaid frog design commissioned by Kahlo for Rivera. Kahlo often called Rivera her “sapo-rana,” or “toad frog,” because of his large eyes.

More than a garden

Families can explore Kahlo’s love of cooking in the children’s garden. In the midst of large shady trees sits a miniature kitchen based on the colors and design of the actual kitchen in Casa Azul.

“This has been a great space to teach children about the foods of Mexico, eating right and all those great lessons,” Conklin says.

In addition, the train exhibit that has captivated eyes both young and old now has a tiny Casa Azul among its many miniature buildings. Children are also encouraged to put on their own shows in the puppet theater set up at the back of the TBG with puppets of Frida Kahlo and the many unusual pets she kept.

“When you do an exhibit like this, you try to do it in as many disciplines as you can to enhance the experience,” Conklin says.

Further into the serene garden are seven poetry panels featuring the work of Mexican poet Octavio Paz, a friend of Kahlo’s. While contemplating Paz’s work, visitors can also browse the many Mexican plants scattered every few feet in the garden.

“There are pocket gardens everywhere,” Conklin says. “Each garden has a different look and a different feel. You can feel like you are all by yourself and gain inspiration or quiet reflection. Every place you sit is like a different painting.”

And more than outside

The exhibition also has two indoor exhibits. The first, set in a petite and historic adobe house, examines the Mexico City that Kahlo and Rivera would have lived in. It includes several cases of old Mexican botanical texts and small trinkets similar to things that might have sat on Kahlo’s shelves.

The second indoor exhibit, across from the gift shop, is a delicate, life-size sculptural re-creation of Kahlo’s painting “The Two Fridas.” The fragile and haunting piece by Humberto Spíndola is constructed out of paper and bamboo, a modern application of an Aztec tradition.

“My background was in arts,” Conklin says. “Before my first visit to a botanical garden, I was like, ‘Why would I want to go to a botanical garden? I would rather go see a play or do this or that.’ Then I stepped foot into the garden and I understood that everything is connected: art, music, science, biology, ecology. Botanical gardens bring everything together under one sky.”

Natalia V. Navarro is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing at the Star.

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