Isaiah Zagar's Mosaic Work
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is the creation of Isaiah Zagar. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Isaiah earned his BA in Painting & Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York. He discovered folk art and became enamored of the work of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York.
Isaiah Zagar became an artist in residence in China and India and spent time at the Kohler Ceramic Factory in Wisconsin. Zagar's work is on permanent display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.
But despite his education and artistic studies, Zagar is, at heart, an Outsider artist who does not so much display his works, but throws it out there for all to see, then creates a gigantic sculpture and invites you inside.
If you love mosaic art, this is the place for you.
Tucked between two buildings near 10th and 11th on South Street, Philadelphia is a Magic Garden. It springs up like a wonderful surprise. Suddenly, there it is, a mosaic wonderland of unique style and subject matter. Walking into Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is like entering a painting!
This museum is inexpensive and unique, all the creation of one man.
Welcome to the Magic Garden
The Philadelphia Magic Gardens is an awe-inspiring sight. The best thing for me was that I had no idea that it was even there. I literally bumped into it, rounding a corner, and glanced up to see a heart-lifting, huge mosaic of blue tiles and shattered mirrors.
Supported by a nonprofit group, the Magic Gardens are entered by way of a storefront but not before you stand out on the sidewalk with your mouth hanging open in the stupefied wonder of the beauty behind a tall iron gate.
The full interior of the building is covered in Zagar's colorful mosaic. When you step into the courtyard, the real show begins. After Isaiah Zagar finished his studio building, he moved out onto the adjacent lot where he built a labyrinth of walls, staircases, and alcoves covered with his hand-crafted tiles, bottles, mirror shards, broken china, exotic statuary, and painted bicycle wheels. Small alcoves built into the walls hold diorama-like displays of interesting (and usually broken) artifacts that feel like secret alters.
Throughout the fantastic display are Zagar's hand-painted tiles featuring thought-provoking and whimsical sentences like:
"Remember walking around in a work of fiction."
Zagars beautiful mosaic murals adorn walls all over South Philly, transforming sedate cement buildings into dream-like murals that electrify the imagination.
Archway in the Magic Garden
The Birth of the Magic Gardens
After a 3 year stint in the Peace Corps where Isaiah and his wife, Julia, worked with folk artists in Peru, near Lake Titicaca, the couple moved to South St. Philadelphia. Julia ran a Latin-American art gallery and shop while Isaiah decorated derelict buildings of the then run down area.
The late 1960s saw a host of young artists, and entrepreneurs move into South Philly. But part of the neighborhood was slated to be demolished for an expressway to link I-95 and I-76 which would cut South Philadelphia off from the center of the city. Community groups organized to fight the expressway and won.
In the early part of this century, the owner of the property where Zagar build the Magic Gardens demanded that Zagar buy the property or it would be torn down. Between personal loans, and through fundraising, and donations thanks to press attention, Zagar and the community managed to save the Magic Garden and established a nonprofit organization to promote and preserve the fabulous works of Isaiah Zagar.
The Dark Side of an Artist
In 2008, Isaiah's son, Jeremiah, produced a documentary film about his father, entitled In a Dream. The film introduces Isaiah, Julia, and the Zagar family. Jeremiah's love and admiration for his lovely, gentle mother is evident; but the personal torments of a mad artist father are disturbing.
Isaiah comes across, at times, as a self centered sociopath. Everyone else seems only important to him in how they impact his life and needs.
In one scene, Isaiah and Julia are driving to fetch their son Ezekiel from a detox center. Isaiah had been instructed to avoid turmoil. But he chooses that moment to confess to his wife that he had an affair, breaking Juila heart and throwing the family into just the kind of turmoil that he had been warned against.
Isaiah had been sexually abused in his youth and spent some time in a mental institution where he ranted and raved and threatened to tear off his own genitals.
How is it that a man so haunted by demons was able to create whole worlds of such exquisite beauty? Isaiah Zagar, in his life and art, offers us opposing sides of humanity, how darkness and light battle for prominence, how a tortured soul can produce and offer to the world his mosaics that stand as a testament to faith and creativity, to beauty, and offer inspirational joy to who ever happens to pass by and glimpse Philadelphia's Magic Garden.
© 2010 Dolores Monet