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The artist Frida Kahlo endured polio and a near-deadly injury followed by a long rehabilitation, making her mark in florid self-portraits that have inspired millions throughout the world.
After a global pandemic and a killing freeze, the San Antonio Botanical Garden has mirrored Kahlo’s recovery to become an oasis for San Antonians aching to be out in public safely amid lushly planted surroundings.
The serendipity of these circumstances is highlighted in the garden’s new exhibition titled Frida Kahlo Oasis, opening Saturday, May 8, to highlight the famed artist’s close relationship with gardening, perhaps less well-known than her famous paintings.
“Her therapy was her art, but it was also being in her garden, and finding solace in nature,” said botanical garden CEO Sabina Carr, who originated the exhibition with the assistance of Kahlo’s estate and the Museo Frida Kahlo. The museum now occupies and preserves the Casa Azul (Blue House) where Kahlo lived in the Coyoacán area of Mexico City with her equally renowned husband, artist Diego Rivera.
“We all know ‘nature Rx’ really helps,” Carr said, in both Kahlo’s circumstances and in the city’s recovery from pandemic isolation and loss.
The opening date of Frida Kahlo Oasis is nearly the one-year anniversary of the garden’s initial reopening on May 3, 2020, which made it the first cultural institution in the U.S. to reopen after the pandemic shutdown. Carr said she learned that fact from a Los Angeles marketing firm that had been tracking reopenings around the country.
“We took all the precautions and we wanted to bring people back. They needed nature,” Carr said, noting that visitation to the garden is up 20% from 2019, and membership has doubled since 2020.
Nature needed tending to after the February deep freeze that killed much vegetation throughout the city, however. Though some plants were saved, the freeze wiped out many of the botanical garden’s plantings, according to Andrew Labay, director of horticulture. A few hardy elephant ear plants survived, though, providing an ideal starting point for placing the 2,100-square-foot Casa Azul setting that forms the centerpiece of the Oasis exhibition.
Kahlo tended elephant ears along with varieties of succulents, the burgeoning bougainvillea flowers she used to make her famous headdresses, vegetables including corn, peppers, and squash, and an eccentric coterie of animals, many of which appear in her paintings.
Labay used archival images of Kahlo’s gardens to form new beds installed around the botanical garden grounds, and added his own playful touches such as a ground cover plant known as Texas frogfruit as a surround to a recreation of the “frog fountain” at Casa Azul, located just under Kahlo’s painting studio.
Brightly painted cobalt-blue walls echo the casa’s eccentric coloration and frame the garden beds, with replicas of Kahlo’s easel and desk situated among the plantings. On the desk sits a replica of her diary, open to pages of the watercolors she made while aware that death was drawing near.
Kahlo’s last entry reads, “Espero alegre la salida – y espero no volver jamás,” translated by the exhibition’s curator Gabriela Gamez as “I am happy waiting for the exit – and I hope I never come back.”
Though Kahlo, who died at age 47, reportedly suffered from depression, wall text in the exhibition quoting her attests to her determination to create her own happiness:
Being happy is a decision made every day, which does not depend on the living conditions one has, but the attitude with which one faces problems.
A set of conch shells meant as an homage to those found in the original fountain nearly delayed the entire exhibition, Carr said, explaining that the entire shipment of artworks was held by customs because conch shells are not allowed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Once the truck finally arrived 11 days late, workers at the garden logged overtime hours to unpack and situate the artworks throughout the grounds.
While the Casa is the centerpiece of Frida Kahlo Oasis, the full exhibition leads visitors on a tour throughout the garden’s 38-acre footprint to see a set of animal sculptures decorated by the artisans of the Phantasus Taller Ensamble, recalling creatures Kahlo kept at the casa. A large xoloitzcuintle dog greets visitors at the garden entrance, and at other locations are stationed a butterfly, deer, monkey, hummingbird, and a parrot recalling Kahlo’s pet named Bonito.
“These are all animals that she interacted with that lived in her home and inspired her art,” Carr said.
The exhibition also features 8-foot-tall modernist statues of Kahlo’s form by sculptor Paul Zarkin, and garden beds throughout the 38-acre grounds that collect a variety of tropical plants commonly found in Mexico.
Events throughout the exhibition, which runs through Nov. 2, will pay homage to Kahlo’s cooking and Mexican heritage. On select Thursday evenings, the botanical garden’s Summer Nights series will become Noches de Frida, with cash bar and portable picnic baskets prepared by chef Jason Dady of the garden’s Jardín restaurant available for purchase.
Frida Kahlo Oasis is free with regular admission to the garden.