To borrow a phrase from the movie “This is Spinal Tap,” the wow factor at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens has been “turned up to 11” since the last time I was there in 2004. It was special then, but now it’s spectacular.
Sprung, crafted, and built from the imagination of mosaic mural artist Isaiah Zagar, the space near 10th and South streets is a multi-level labyrinth of mosaicked mirrored walls, as well as arches and structures adorned with Mexican and Central American tiles, shards of pottery and figurines, discarded dinnerware, lawn ornaments, statuettes, abandoned bicycle wheels and car radiators, gargoyles, salvaged glassware, and many, many bottles in cerulean and sapphire blues, emerald, and jade greens.
It’s all held together with cement and grout in seafoam and aqua, violet and pink, and sunrise orange — just to name a few far-out colors. Zagar hand-dyes and mixes the grout, so he can choose whatever colors he wants.
He calls these structures, simply, his “poems.”
The curious will also find a kind of artful diary amid the structures, with visual anecdotes and personal narratives that refer to Zagar’s life, family, and community, as well to the universality of art and music, with homages to legendary figures in art history.
Zagar likes to spell out names, thoughts, and quotes, writing brief statements in painted tiles across his murals, kind of like a giant Scrabble game.
For example, look closely at one area, and you’ll see the phrase, “The Works of the Insane” spelled out. Interesting food for thought.
You’ll also see the phrase “Art is the center of the real world” multiple times, as this is Zagar’s philosophy. The “real world” is not the insanity of politics, media, and consumer mania, it’s art — beauty and creativity and wonder — all of which can be found in abundance in Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG).
Open Wednesdays through Mondays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., a stroll through the Gardens might be just the beginning of a fascination with Zagar and his work, as it was for me. And one trip through these whimsical maze-like structures is definitely not enough.
As far as the artist himself, whereas once you had to stumble on Zagar working in his courtyard area to enter the space and interact, there are now regular “Tours and Talks with Isaiah,” first Thursdays of every other month. In addition to getting a private tour, you can hear Zagar’s account of his time in the Peace Corps during the height of the Vietnam War, how mosaicking changed his life, and what he’s up to now. The next one is Thursday, September 7, then Thursday, November 16.
There are also hands-on art sessions and mosaic workshops with the artist, the last weekend of the month: August 26-27, September 23-24, and October 21-22, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In addition, PMG hosts regular art exhibits with free public receptions: coming Friday, September 15, through Sunday, November 12, is “Time’s Funeral: Drawings & Poems by Justin Duerr,” with an opening reception September 15. From Friday, November 17, through Sunday, February 25, 2018, the gallery will host an exhibit of Zagar’s mosaics.
Adults can enjoy various craft nights with wine, special happy hours with crafts and music, and “Twilight in the Gardens” — BYOB multi-sensory concerts with local performers and adult art activities. For the kids, every second Sunday of the month, there are “PECO Family Jams,” featuring hands-on workshops and kid-friendly tours (September 10, October 8, November 12, and December 10, noon to 4 p.m.).
You can even rent the space for weddings and other special events.
The Magic Gardens’ murals — like Zagar’s other works all around town — feature many peaceful, Picasso-esque faces with large, wise, benign eyes. The artist enjoys crafting and painting bodies and self-portraits among the flotsam and jetsam. The other face most often portrayed is that of Zagar’s wife and muse, Julia, who is depicted looking like a happier, friendlier Frida Kahlo, with piercing almond eyes, dark hair, and ears adorned with dangling Meso-American earrings
(Julia’s store, the venerable Eyes Gallery at 402 South Street, sells an array of earrings and other folk jewelry and things she has, for years, hand-selected during her many travels to Mexico. The facade of the building is decorated with one of Zagar’s earliest mosaics.)
Isaiah (and most people refer to him by his first name) paints Julia as a kind of goddess, often in the nude, sometimes even as a mermaid. She’s a “mother” to the other mermaids, many fish, and oceanic creatures that swim among the currents of the Magic Gardens.
Sometimes he portrays himself as a bearded bodhisattva, a multi-armed god akin to Shiva, the Hindu creator and destroyer. Isaiah/Shiva holds a bucket in one hand, a trowel and other masonry tools in other hands, a paintbrush in yet another.
Like Shiva, Zagar’s creations involve destruction; he takes ceramics or mirrors and breaks them down into smaller shards, which he places like dominoes, or pieces of a puzzle.
The mirrors play a major part in Zagar’s mosaics, making the walls somewhat otherworldly. I wonder if it’s a little game he plays, because as you’re taking in his work, you’ll suddenly see yourself inside his creations. Certain tiled words are spelled backwards, so you have to see them in the mirrors to read them.
The mirrors make the Gardens (as well as the urban structures wrapped with Zagar’s works) sparkle and shine, even on a gray day in the City of Brotherly Love. On a sunny day the mirrors shoot prisms of light across the sidewalks and adjacent buildings.
Other faces and figures and homages in the Gardens include “Gertie,” Zagar’s mother; Ezekiel, his eldest son; and Jeremiah, the couple’s younger son.
The latter is a noted filmmaker, whose 2008 documentary, “Isaiah Zagar: In a Dream,” is an intimate and loving account of the artist’s lifetime of highs and lows, his work ethic and connection with the arts community, and the Zagar family dynamics. The film especially showcases the artist’s unusual technique, the careful and skilled rendering of his structures.
At age 78, Zagar continues to work every day, mostly at his current studio a little farther south in Philadelphia. Emily Smith, executive director of the Magic Gardens, says Zagar is compulsive but in a positive way, finding an affirmative route to peace of mind through creativity and art
“It’s like we’re inside his head, his dream,” Smith says, showing a visitor around the space where you can’t help but crane your neck, drop your jaw, and point your camera.
How do you describe this guy anyway? Is Zagar a found-object artist, mosaic mural artist, South Street arts community founding father, or perhaps an “architect of organized and beautiful madness?” All of the aforementioned?
Born in Philadelphia in 1939 and raised in Brooklyn, Zagar received his BFA in painting and graphics from the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. When he was 19, he discovered the folk art installations of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York, which later inspired him to include the concepts of untrained artists as manifestations of fine art.
Before launching his art career, Zagar and Julia traveled to Peru to serve in the Peace Corps, working with folk artists in the Puno region near Lake Titicaca, where they stayed for three years. The Peruvian influence can be seen in Zagar’s depictions of himself in Andean-style hats, as well as wearing something akin to “mukluks,” heavy knitted sock-shoes that help ward off the cold in mountainous regions.
Aside from the South American inclinations, however, Zagar’s art is heavily influenced by his travels as well as his interactions with international folk and visionary artists.
In 1968 the couple settled in Philadelphia, when the eastern end of South Street was broken down and mostly without hope. The two used the skills they learned in the Peace Corps to spark change in the neighborhood, which has flourished in the last 45 years.
In the late 1970s Zagar began to receive support from Philadelphia’s mainstream arts community, and his work started to appear in exhibits and public projects, including the exterior of the Painted Bride Art Center at 230 Vine Street.
Zagar’s work is included in the permanent collections of numerous art institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He has received grants recognizing his artistic excellence from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In addition, Zagar has completed artist residencies in Tianjin, China, and Rajasthan, India, and participated in a residency at the Kohler Co. Pottery Foundry in Wisconsin.
Both he and Julia continue to travel extensively, with Zagar speaking at conferences and artists’ lectures at home and abroad.
His mosaicked and mirrored creations decorate and “wrap” many structures, mostly around the Queen Village and Bella Vista neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, and there are some 250 public sites in Philadelphia that have been touched by Zagar’s imagination and skills. You can find a guide to all of them on PMG’s website, www.phillymagicgardens.org.
However, this particular block on South between 11th and 10th streets is the epicenter of Zagar’s body of work.
The large parcel of land was once a series of vacant lots. The Gardens began as a place next to Zagar’s former studio at 1020 South Street, where he kept things he might want to incorporate in his work.
These would be dinnerware and glassware, tiles, figurines, gnomes, and other garden “objects,” even discarded toilets. His friends, fans, and neighbors knew what Zagar might like to use in his structures, so they would bring them by his place. They still do, in fact.
In 1994 Zagar started working on the vacant lots. He first constructed a massive fence to protect the area, and then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Zagar’s “poems” began to take over, and the space became a work of art in itself, dubbed the “Magic Garden” (singular). Instead of just being a place for his stuff, the Magic Garden became a magnet for the curious, and from visitors and travelers to passersby, it seemed like everyone liked to stop and gawk at the bower of organized, artful chaos.
Unfortunately, he was squatting on the space, and in 2002 the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled.
Unwilling to witness the destruction of the beloved neighborhood art environment, the community rallied to support Zagar. With counsel from his savvy lawyer, and after a couple of years of legal strife, Zagar’s creation was re-dubbed “Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens” (plural).
PMG became incorporated as a non-profit organization with the intention of preserving the artwork at the site, as well as Zagar’s works throughout the South Street area.
The Gardens now see well over 100,000 visitors a year, there are some 25 people on the staff of the organization, and the site has become a Philadelphia fixture.
The artist had no aspirations to run a museum or art garden. He still has the heart of an outsider artist, preferring to just make art. Smith reflects that Zagar will drop in to the Gardens, look around, smile and say something like, “Is all this really real? Did I do this?”
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens have grown down as well as up, with Zagar excavating and then adorning a grotto off the center of the main courtyard.
Smith points out rebar (reinforcing bars) in place atop several arches and walls, indicating that the artist plans to keep building.
An elaborate archway leading down the steps to the grotto has the word “changes” spelled out on it, perhaps capturing the overall essence of the Gardens.
“It’s a living work, a breathing organism,” Smith says, reflecting on the constant ongoing evolution of the Magic Gardens.
In regard to the folks volunteering and staffing the Magic Gardens, Smith says, “We’re a family. We’re trying to create a positive environment,” adding that the gardens are Zagar’s artful reaction to the hardness of the world, and the surrounding urban environment of South Philadelphia. “It’s a soft escape,” she says.
If Zagar is constantly creating, Julia is his true partner and soul mate in all this. In fact, they re-married in 2005, underneath a wooden masterpiece of a chuppah — crafted in Bali, with carvings influenced by Zagar’s art — which stands in the midst of the Magic Gardens.
Reflecting on the couple’s ever-growing creativity and love, Smith muses, “Isaiah and Julia will outlive all of us.”
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, Philadelphia. Wednesdays through Mondays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Guided tours on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students (with ID) and ages 65 and over, $5 for children ages 6 to 12, free for children 5 and under. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone. 215-733-0390 or www.phillymagicgardens.org.
Tours and Talks with Isaiah, first Thursdays of every other month: Thursday, September 7, and Thursday, November 16, 6 to 7:30 p.m. $20.
Mosaic workshops with the artist. Last weekend of the month: August 26 and 27, September 23 and 24, and October 21 and 22, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. $200-$350.
Art exhibits through winter 2017-’18: “Time’s Funeral: Drawings & Poems by Justin Duerr,” Friday, September 15, through Sunday, November 12, with an opening reception September 15.