The Keeper of Niki de Saint Phalle's Menagerie | Mingei International Museum
Niki de Saint Palle, "Nikigator", 2001, waiting to be transported to her new temporary home at Liberty Station.
Image: Niki de Saint Palle, "Nikigator", 2001, waiting to be transported to her new temporary home at Liberty Station.

As Lech Juretko, longtime assistant to Saint Phalle, prepares the Museum’s beloved "Nikigator" for a trip to Liberty Station, he shares stories of his own journey alongside the artist of the work.

"We did get along very well because we were both workaholics."

Did you first meet Niki de Saint Phalle in La Jolla, where she lived and worked? Are you originally from San Diego?

I was born in Szczecin, Poland and moved to Hamburg, Germany where I lived for five years with my family. In the mid 1980s, we moved to beachy, sunny San Diego.

I met Niki in 1994 through (Mingei Founder) Martha Longenecker, who I had known since the late '80s, working on preservation of the Japanese details in her home. She loved Japan. Niki had just moved to La Jolla and needed some remodeling done. Once I finished, she really liked my quality of work and asked if I wanted to make sculptures with her. This was such a new field for me, but of course, I said yes because I like challenges.

The next week I was in Paris, learning mosaic techniques with glass from her assistant Pierre Marie Lejeune.

And that is how my work with Niki began.

Was there an immediate connection with her, or did that develop over time?

When I met Niki, there was definitely a sense of ease, comfort and openness from her. I worked with her for eight years, every day, and yes, we did get along very well because we were both workaholics. When I met Niki, I saw how consumed she was with her own work, her art. She was always thinking, creating, drawing.

Her life was her art?

Always. You could say she was obsessed, but when you love something . . .

What was a key learning while working with her?

A lot of my education was on the job with the first commission of her Gila Monster in Rancho Santa Fe. Niki taught me through this hands-on training that you always have to be prepared for issues to arise, and you have to creatively figure out how to solve them on the spot.

What is your favorite piece you worked on together?

I think one of my favorite pieces is Buddha because I have some great memories of Niki, colleague Rico Weber, (Niki Charitable Foundation Trustee) Marcelo Zitelli and myself sitting inside the Buddha, pretending we were saintly. I enjoyed all 100 works I did with Niki.

But if I had to pick one project, it would be the enormous L’ange Protecteur, an angel twice as big as the one Mingei has (Angel of Temperance), for the Zurich Train Station.

Why is it your favorite?

Because the party was good! (smiles)

The timing was actually crazy. There was no time to paint it here. She had to find a place in Switzerland to work on it and figure out how the art would travel to its final destination. There was even a bridge on the way to the studio that it would not fit under. We looked into helicopters that were pricey. For Niki, more important than money was that she had to do it.

Eventually she was able to get the art transported, and we found a space to finish the work. We ran into problems with gold leaf though. She hired a guy from L.A. who didn’t have the experience for such a large scale project. By the time Niki came from France, it was a disaster, and she had to bring in her gold people from Paris. We helped to strip the wings of gold to redo it and the French crew fixed it in three days.

Prior to the opening, we transported the art to the station at night, and had to keep hanging it and taking it down to place it, and it was darn cold. There’s a photo of Niki huddled in a big black plastic bag to stay warm at 1am. For a week, we’d assemble all night until 6 or 7am, eat breakfast, sleep and get up in the afternoon to start work again. Then Niki came at night to direct us on placement and position of the Angel (suspended from the ceiling).

The opening was really nice, though, with the unveiling at night.

We're excited by the debut of Nikigator in ARTS DISTRICT Liberty Station. Any "fun facts" about the sculpture?

Nikigator weighs 5,000 pounds, and the stones used come from all over the world—the marbles were made in Guadalajara and the turquoise in the U.S. I remember the excitement we all had, too, when we first brought the metal skeleton of Nikigator to Balboa Park. Niki and I met with Martha, Marcelo and (Mingei Executive Director & CEO) Rob Sidner to figure out her placement.

Can you tell us about the sourcing of materials for the mosaic sculptures?

The travels for materials were interesting. We might look for European-style glass, which is cheaper in L.A. than San Diego. I’d check out the store in Santa Monica and find another deal on some tumble stones. Or for Nikigator, I asked a friend in Mexico where to source tumble stones. We went all the way to Guadalajara for them and didn’t find any, but instead found marbles and balls we could use, but it turned out the dealer was in Kentucky. So we’d come back and order them from Kentucky. Once I bought so many materials at the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, the biggest in the world, that I couldn’t fit them in the trunk.

Niki would come to my space in Santee to design. And she’d pick what she liked.

Mingei acquired much of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work, but how do you think the work is particularly mingei in its attentiveness to beauty and daily use?

Mingei is “art of the people,” so yes, I do think Niki’s work is definitely in line with that concept.

She created art that is beautiful, colorful and functional. Her art is meant to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It is okay to touch her sculptures, to climb on some of them (such as Nikigator) and just to experience her art wholeheartedly.

What are you working on now?

I do the restoration work on Niki’s sculptures such as Nikigator, Queen Califia’s Magical Circle and other sculptures internationally. I work closely with the Niki Charitable Art Foundation, as well, for installation and deinstallation of her exhibitions.

You spend time with her work each day. Is there a certain spirit contained in them, in a way, or a nostalgic relationship you have with the objects?

I don’t have these kinds of feelings or try not to have them. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I don’t like to cry.

What will you remember most about Niki de Saint Phalle?

Well, Niki really opened my eyes to art and truly brought me into the art world, into her world.

Working with her day in, day out, she just gave the people around her—the people that work with her—this kind of energy, like she’s showing you that you can do anything. She pushed people to be better—to do better because she believed in them—and she believed in me.

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