After moving to Philadelphia from the suburbs in 2008, I was fascinated by the colorful, shimmering mosaics I found on Gaskill, Leithgow, and South Streets.
But I didn’t know who had created them.
So, I went to “the Google” – as President George W Bush called it. Surprisingly, one of the first stories I found on artist Isaiah Zagar, the man responsible for more than 200 mosaic murals in the city, was from the Seattle Times‘ Sally and John Macdonald.
Digging deeper, I learned about Zagar’s opus, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a labyrinthine and unique sculpture garden on South Street. I read about the documentary, In A Dream, that his son, Jeremiah, had made about him. And finally, I sat down one morning with the artist himself – a friendly, polite, soft-spoken man, for breakfast at the Fitzwater Cafe.
Zagar told me he was born in the city at Osteopathic Hospital (then at 48th and Spruce), grew up in Brooklyn, and received a B.A. in Painting & Graphics from Pratt Institute in New York City.
After serving in the Peace Corps for three years in rural Peru (with no electricity or heat), Zagar and his wife Julia moved to the Germantown section of Philadelphia. In short order, he suffered “reverse culture shock,” and found himself in a mental institution.
He felt like a failure and even attempted suicide. Then he started to live again. His recovery period took nine months, the gestation period of his son Ezekiel.
Reinventing himself, Zagar and his family moved to South Street in 1968, then a downtrodden, depressed, crime-ridden area just waiting to be demolished for the Crosstown Expressway.
Zagar regained his confidence by focusing on a successful period in his life at Pratt, where, on a summer scholarship, he worked with Clarence Schmidt, a noted practitioner of
the outdoor art environment.
The Zagars developed a new strategy: get a piece of real estate cheap, open a store, sell Isaiah’s art as well as folk art they brought back from Peru, and “make the place our business and our home into an outside environment.”
Done, done, and done.
Zagar learned construction techniques, “unbuilt” the Eyes Gallery space at 4th and South, and redid it using materials found at abandoned warehouses. including glass, tile, shoe ornaments, and more.
Top tidbits from our conversation:
His biggest mural: The old firehouse at 1016-18 South Street. When he completed it, he said, “Now I have entered the consciousness of Philadelphia.”
His favorite mural: “Animal Dreams” on the side of Society Hill Playhouse. “It s in a beautiful, quiet location with homes and trees.”
Where he’ll work: Any blank wall made of unpainted masonry, open to the public for 24 hours daily, and within one-half mile of his workshop at 10th and South Street.
Problematic location: Society Hill, whose Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee believes his work “is inconsistent with the neighborhood character.” Zagar says, “It’s off the map for me.” If he did a job, “there would be such consternation, anger would erupt.”
Society Hill Playhouse: When Zagar saw that a painted mural on the north side of the building was decaying, he asked Deen Cogan, owner and operator of the playhouse, if he could do a mosaic there. She said yes, upsetting two nearby residents who made quite a fuss. The result “It’s wonderful,” Deen says. ‘You have no idea how many people come by and take photos of it. They love it.”
Philadelphia’s One Percent for Art Program: “I have never gotten past the first stage in 25 years. It’s very important that I did not get it. I would be stilted.” And stilted is one word you probably will never see used to describe Isaiah Zagar’swork.
When You Visit Philadelphians Magic Gardens: Expect to be simply overwhelmed by colors, objects, and a dazzling array of tiles in this artistic tour de force. Your eye just doesn’t know where to go first or next because the entire place is a feast for the eyes. Wherever you glance in this labyrinth – up, down or sideways – you see something new and different: blues, greens, reds; discarded figures, bottles, wheel rims, reflecting tiles, and more. There’s even a chuppah, a canopy where marriages are performed. Children love the gardens because they can go down steps, through tunnels, and explore on their own. It’s a truly unique and enjoyable experience for all ages.
Self-Portrait of Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia’s mosaic artist. He’s the little boy in “Animal Dreams,” with his fishing pole and a caught fish (lower left). This mosaic, his favorite, is on the north side of Society Hill Playhouse’s building, 507 S. 8th Street.
1020 South Street
Open 365 days a year
Sunday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Friday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
This article was originally printed in the November/December 2012 edition of the Society Hill Reporter. It has been reprinted with permission.