Many Philadelphians may take for granted a sight that frequents the narrow, colonial streets of South Philly – passages of mosaic murals made from broken mirror and porcelain embedded in plaster on building facades. These distinctive pieces are the life’s work of local artist Isaiah Zagar, and manifest in their most concentrated form at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a multi-unit outdoor sculpture garden that presents a maze of mosaic which invites visitors to lose themselves in color and light. The works were developed between 1994 and 2002 as a guerilla art installation on vacant lots near Zagar’s studio.
In 2004, those lots and the unsanctioned works were put up for sale and subsequently slated for development which would lead to the destruction of the art. This sequence of events was met with resistance by community-based activists. The activists created Philadelphia Magic Garden, a non-profit foundation that harnessed enough public support to purchase the lots and ultimately preserve the works. Open to the public since 2008, PMG now hosts a variety of workshops, concerts, and exhibitions, as well as Zagar’s immersive sculptural legacy.
The Man Behind the Magic Gardens
A self-described visionary artist, Zagar’s raw materials are largely found or donated. His work features a surprising collection of objects, from bicycle wheels and chipped china to Peruvian terra cotta sculpture. Zagar and his wife Julia founded the folk art boutique Eyes Gallery (a few blocks from PMG), and broken pottery elements from their import business find their way into the murals. His use of translucent and reflective materials creates a dizzying, labyrinthine sensation in the space, and elements of writing in individually created tiles are equally mesmerizing.
“My work is marked by events and is a mirror of the mind that is building and falling apart, having a logic but close to chaos, refusing to stay still for the camera, and giving a sense of heaven and hell simultaneously,” writes Zagar in his artist statement. He continues to create new mosaics as well as make additions to old ones.
Although Zagar studied painting and drawing at Pratt, he is often characterized as an outsider artist, perhaps due to his culling of influence from naive and folk artists the world over – particularly Woodstock’s Clarence Schmidt – and the development of his own unique mosaic methodology. Beyond showcasing Zagar’s work, PMG also has a mission to host annual exhibitions, most of which feature self-taught artists. “We’re a very non-traditional gallery space, in the nature of Isaiah Zagar,” said exhibitions coordinator Adam Mazur.
Magic Gardens Today
This summer’s exhibition, Cast of Curiosities, is an installation of sculptural work by artist Linda Lou Horn, who came to sculpture after a career as a psychotherapist. “Around 50 I jumped out of an airplane,” Horn says, describing the beginning of her transition towards art. “I wanted the second half of my life to be different from the first.”
Horn’s sculptures are a macabre amalgam of expressive objects, typically based around a combination of found material and sculpted air-dry clay. Skillfully combining a wide variety of elements, recognizable objects make surprise appearances as re-imagined props. The fluted end of a woodwind instrument becomes an absurdist horn on the front of a vehicle. A netted pasta strainer arcs above a figure’s head as if to shield him from the sun. Horn is from St. Paul, Minnesota, and grew up in a family with an appreciation for discarded things. “My mom pioneered recycling and dad had a rubbish removal business,” Horn writes in her artist statement. “I loved going to the dump with dad. There I found the richness of ‘trash’ as a material.”
Her most engaging works feature items that are in themselves anthropomorphic, adorned with suggestive embellishments that allow their humanoid characteristics to come alive in complex, emotive ways. Each piece maintains elements of both tragedy and play, reflective of Horn’s experience in the field of mental health.
While promoting new self-taught artists, PMG continues its mission to maintain Zagar’s legacy by managing his various murals offsite around Philadelphia. An official count on Zagar’s body of work is unknown, as he sometimes remembers the placement of additional mosaics. His body of work spanning the past 50 years is at the estimated at over 200. “We don’t even know where all the murals are,” PMG’s events and marketing manager Allison Boyle admitted.
The complex task of maintaining multiple sites around the city, especially considering Zagar’s uncouth assortment of materials, is an exciting challenge for PMG’s restorative team. Discussing the foundation’s unique challenges from working with a living artist to restore and maintain their work, Boyle described the PMG as a work in progress, through both Zagar’s ongoing additions and the effects of time on his work. Efforts to patch or repair elements that have disintegrated are met with varied responses by Zagar. “Some days he cares more than others,” she explained. “To him, there’s beauty in the decay.”