This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2008: Past stretches of green grass at the Missouri Botanical Garden, around open tulips and emerging tree buds sits a giant skull. Flashes of greens and yellows, oranges and reds pop out from glaring eye sockets. Nearly every inch sparkles under the Sunday sun.
And there are voices.
Three of them. Through the ear-like archway, Kavi Wilson listens as his words bounce from shiny spot to shiny spot, back into daylight through the space between bared teeth. Kavi, 5, stares up into a ceiling of blue glass circles and a white half moon.
“Look,” he says to his parents, Swati and Brent Wilson. “It looks like night there.”
They tilt their heads back, looking.
“Which side looks better?” the little brown-haired boy wonders. “The inside or the outside?”
And what about from the nostril cavity, all stony bumps just right for sitting? Or those eye sockets, where you can perch, knees tucked under chin?
Kavi can’t decide.
So the sometimes-shy Kirkwood preschooler climbs and plays and touches the pop art of Niki de Saint Phalle, the centerpiece of the Missouri Botanical Garden's "Niki in the Garden" exhibition.
It was Kavi’s idea to come here. The garden’s one of his favorite places, though usually, other than the Children’s Garden, he can only run across the grass and scuff his shoes on low limbs.
This is different. Like Niki’s work, the day offers something quite unexpected.
Inside the skull, called “La Cabeza,” Kavi’s family listen to their voices echo.
“Hey, this skull is pretty dangerous,” Kavi decides, fixing his body in front of slick, nubby teeth where he can see a strip of grass, knees and bellies. Kavi pushes his skinny arms through and growls at people passing.
Most of them stop, eyes big, then step up and touch and duck inside.
“I like this,” Mr. Wilson, who works in advertising, says to his wife, a stay-at-home mom. Walking through the formal garden and seeing a six-ton, mosaic-tile, fiberglass skull was a shock, he thought. “This is cool.”
Mrs. Wilson, however, wasn’t a fan, at least not at first. When she saw one of the sculptures outside the garden, she couldn’t imagine how these bright things would fit with nature. Soon, though, as she sees the works' context and placement in the Garden and as she begins to connect with some of their spiritual themes, Mrs. Wilson decides she likes the work after all.
Kavi likes it, too. It's scary, but he isn’t scared.
“Everyone thinks the skull is talking,” he calls to his parents from his spot in the mouth, where little faces frequently peek in.Then, he stretches his arms out for another growl.
That night before dinner, Kavi and his dad sit down at the coffee table in their living room. Together, with fine-tipped markers, they draw the giant skull. When he gets time, Kavi plans to fill in the background with scenes of the garden.
No doubt, a shiny skull is a strange thing to find there. But, in Kavi’s picture and at the garden through the fall, it’s exactly where something unexpected, and maybe a little scary, waits.
If you go
What: Niki in the Garden
Where: Missouri Botanical Garden, 4344 Shaw Blvd.
When: The exhibit runs April 27, through October 31.
Cost: General garden admission is $8, $4 St. Louis City and County residents. Children 12 and under are free. May through September, the Garden will offer Niki Nights on Thursdays, which cost $7 for adults, $5 for garden members and $3 for children 12 and under.
Kristen Hare, Lake St. Louis, is a free-lance writer.