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New Art Exhibit: Whimsy With A Dark Side

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Skull sculpture. Click to view more pictures.

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The Firebird has become a must-have photo opportunity for visitors to Charlotte's uptown. It's a giant, bird-like statute covered in mirrors almost too blinding to look at when the sun is out. It's on the plaza in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and it's the work of Niki de Saint Phalle, who is the focus of the museum's newest exhibition. Five more of Niki de Saint Phalle's enormous sculptures have sprouted up in a park across from the Bechtler. Four-year old Ryan Roy has climbed inside a 14-foot skull. It has googly eyes and a devilish grin. Ryan is peering out through the pearly white teeth. "Cool!" he exclaims. "Momma! Will you take a picture of me?" View more pictures. This is exactly what the artist would have wanted. "Her real happiness and fulfillment was watching children playing with her sculptures," says Laura Duke, daughter of Niki de Saint Phalle. "She really loved it." De Saint Phalle - or Niki, as she preferred to be called - was one of the most significant and unconventional female artists of the 20th century. She was born in France in 1930, raised partly in America and died in 2002 having spent much of her life as a celebrated artist. Parks and plazas from Paris to San Diego bear her mark. She worked with greats like Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali and Jasper Johns. She was a painter, sculptor, poet and even a fashion model for Vogue. "She was very beautiful, glamorous and she was very sexy," says Duke of her mother. A strong thread of sensuality runs through the 55 pieces of Niki's art now on display inside the Bechtler Museum. Her women are ample, curvaceous and often pregnant. There are fertility gods, Egyptian deities, Buddhas. Much of her work is bright and abstract, like you've stepped inside a whimsical children's book. Duke says her mother's inspiration came from her nightmares. That's how she explains the skulls, snakes and monsters prevalent throughout the exhibit. Many pieces are colorful and happy on one side, and dark and sinister on the other. "She went through a lot of hardship," explains Duke. "There was sexual abuse in her child hood and it created mental trouble. She had health problems. Something I've learned from African wisdom is you go through disaster by celebration. When you're faced with tragedy - you have to pull up your joy." When she looks at her mother's work, does she see Niki's pain or joy? "I see her humanity," says Duke. "I see not only her humanity, but I see OUR humanity." Niki de Saint Phalle's dedication to depicting that humanity contributed to her own death. Decades of breathing the fiberglass and polyester used to create her sculptures so damaged her lungs that she died from pneumonia in 2002 at the age of 71. Her work is on display through September at the Bechtler Museum of Modern art and on the Green outside.