Exploring "Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life"

Ninety-one degrees and about ten minutes late to meeting my dear friend, Isaac, I arrive to the Tucson Botanical Gardens to explore the Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life exhibit. As soon as I had heard that this exhibit had made its way to Tucson from New York, I was extremely eager to explore it. Not sure of what to expect, given that the New York Botanical Garden had 150 acres to work with and the Tucson Botanical Garden had about 5 acres, I knew that it'd still be something magical. I mean c'mon... it's Frida Kahlo.

This is also my first time visiting the Tucson Botanical Gardens ever. So I was pretty excited. Especially after Isaac busted out some Yerba Mate teas (I chose pomegranate) out of his backpack for the both of us, I knew it was going to be a beautiful adventure!

As soon as you walk in, you're inside the gift shop that has Frida Kahlo merchandise galore - socks, jewelry, photos, even a Frida Kahlo perfume (yes I smelled it and to be quite honest, no it doesn't smell as unique as Frida is).

When you step out, you see the entrance to the exhibit: Casa Azul.

The first thing your eyes can't help but be drawn to is the sight of bold colors and flowers everywhere. What's so cool about this exhibit is the fact that pretty much everything, from the signs to the walls, is from the NYBG exhibit. "The only thing that wasn’t included in the original exhibit are the exhibit cases that have books, artifacts,” said Michelle Conklin, the Executive Director of the Tucson Botanical Gardens and the one responsible for bringing the exhibit to Tucson, in an interview I had with her a few days after visiting the gardens. Not only that but the process that went behind bringing this to Tucson is so amazing, as well. "I feel like we did a really great job and it was a labor of love for the community and for the staff to pull together and make this happen," commented Michelle.

The pyramid itself, what I felt was like a centerpiece, is magnificent. All those cacti beautifully arranged and placed like a work of art. And the lovely, bright marigolds surrounding it. I probably went around that thing like seven times.

I couldn't help but wonder what Frida Kahlo would think if she could've came and explored this exhibit herself. I'm sure she would have loved it!

We strolled the gardens, took our time to venture it and flow into conversations under the warm morning sun. There are poetry panels and a television playing a video on Frida, lots of signs to read and learn more about her history and life. There's a building within the garden that houses many images to ponder on and observe. We felt absolutely no time restraint, as if we had all the time in the world. 

Neither of us had had breakfast yet so we decided to eat at Café Botanica before visiting Butterfly Magic. And oh my goodness, let me tell you, it was delicious! I enjoyed this meal so much, it was such an ideal morning. Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, it did! They had some Frida influenced menu items that were just a delight to eat and even read.

On top of all that, when we went to Butterfly Magic we were told that one hundred butterflies were just added and released before we got there! How lucky is that?

I definitely plan on coming to this exhibit again. It was just so fun and so beautiful and I feel like each visit will offer something new (even if I did already see everything). Also, what's so great is that the Tucson Botanical Gardens will be having multiple events revolving Frida Kahlo and the exhibit. You can check them out here. There's a whole lecture series that I hope to attend.

Read my full interview with Michelle Conklin below!

I’m just really interested in how you made the Frida Kahlo exhibit happen because it went viral that this exhibit was in New York and it was 150 acres and you guys only had five to work with! So had you heard about this exhibit in New York and thought, “I have to bring this here,” or how did that work?

I am a member of the American Public Gardens Association and I was on a national program conference committee. My colleague Karen Daubmann, who is the Vice President of Exhibitions and Public Programs mentioned to me that they were waiting to hear about a grant award. When I learned that the exhibition was going to be on Frida Kahlo, I said, “Well I’d love to have it in Tucson!” The following year we saw each other at the same meeting and I mentioned it again -  nothing happened. In September 2015, she called and said the grant stipulated. That the exhibit should travel to one small public garden. The garden that they had identified backed out and if I wanted the exhibit, it was ours. So really, it came to us through relationship building and persistence.

That’s so exciting! So did you get a phone call or an email when you got the news? I’m sure you were really excited to hear it!

When I got the phone call and Karen said, “Listen if you want it it’s yours.” I was like, “Oh my god, yes of course I want it!” I was so shocked and excited. I had to write a letter to the National Endowment for Humanities because the grant then had to be changed for it to tour to the Tucson Botanical Gardens. The National Endowment for Humanities sent a letter back and they were thrilled because Tucson is just seemingly the perfect community to bring this exhibit to.

So I got the call in September, and I flew out October 30th, the last weekend of the exhibit to look at it and identify the pieces that I wanted to have at our Garden. In the end I took nearly everything except the original paintings and some historical artifacts because we don’t have the security in place to hold paintings. What we did accept was an enormous amount of exhibitory - it all fit into a 54 foot freight truck and that was delivered to us in the first part of January 2016.

So really, [the exhibit] came to us through relationship building and persistence.
— Michelle Conklin

So from January to October you guys were installing all this into your garden?

Actually, no because we weren’t ready to install it. Pima Community College offered to hold the exhibits for us. So the truck arrived at Pima Community College, and it stayed there until the first of August. We then brought it over to our pavilion and unpacked everything (which took forever). We sorted through to see what we had, because we didn’t really know what the heck we were getting! We had an idea but we really weren’t sure how many walls, how many signs, what the signs said, we didn’t know if the pyramid was intact… so we had a tremendous amount of work and preparation to get this exhibit opened to the public on October 10th.

Everything you see at the gardens was shipped from New York. The only thing that wasn’t included in the original exhibit are the exhibit cases that have books, artifacts… but every sign, every wall, every fountain, the pyramid, the video that plays on the television, the poetry panels, everything was shipped. It was our job to figure out how it to install it and make it our own.

Was that stressful for you or was that more so an exciting challenge?

Well you know it was interesting because when I saw the exhibit in New York it was incredibly overwhelming. The New York Botanical Gardens is magnificent. The spaces they have and the resources they have are also pretty overwhelming, but really once returned home, I knew immediately where items would be placed: the pyramid, the dresses, walls… I saw it finished in my head. I then hired David Klanderman, an exhibit curator in Tucson, to work with me and I turned a lot over to him. He had to get the licensing fees all in place for every image, he monitored and was in charge of making sure everything was installed on time and he needed to work with my staff to implement. Then I also had Jason Isenberg, from Realm, who is a garden designer and horticulturist. Jason handled creating an all over garden design and installation of plant materials. So it was a huge endeavor. Then Pima Community College... their staff came over to the Gardens on a number of weekends. They were in charge of rebuilding the pavilion and repainting all of the walls and the pyramid. I think there are 22 different walls. Our staff created Frida’s kitchen in the Children’s Garden. Dunn Edwards Paint Company donated forty-two gallons of paint!

I feel like we did a really great job and it was a labor of love for the community and for the staff to pull together and make this happen.
— Michelle Conklin

How about the flowers themselves? Obviously those weren’t shipped, so how did you select what kind of flowers would be installed?

Well the planting was really our vision. Jason Isenberg and I just sat down and I told him that we really needed to do a giant pop of color. We needed to make sure that when people walk into that garden, I really wanted to hit them with the beautiful blue and we wanted the flowers to really speak! Jason did a design using marigolds. We are coming up to Day of the Dead and marigolds are very symbolic of that holiday in the Mexican cultural communities so we felt it was just perfect!

Yes they are perfect! That’s why I wanted to comment on them because as soon as I walked in I saw the intense blue and then the beautiful orange from the marigolds. It just goes so beautiful together.

Then we used that as a recurring theme of marigolds throughout the garden. We just carried it pretty much everywhere. We wanted our guests to feel the theme throughout the whole five acres.

Wow. I’m sure you were really anticipating the opening of the exhibit. Now that it is out and open to the public, how do you feel?

Really proud, (and I don’t say that very often), because I felt like we had such big shoes to fill. I really wanted to do service to the New York Botanic Garden’s vision and Mr Scott Pask, the scenic designer in New York who created the original design of Casa Azul for NYBG. So I feel really proud. I feel like we did a really great job and it was a labor of love for the community and for the staff to pull together and make this happen. I am just overwhelmed with the response we’re getting from the community and even from outside the community including other states and from around the world. It’s really been an amazing experience.