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Pictures of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens and Isaiah Zagar's Tile Mosaics

[ NEW YORK, NY - NYC - 11/30/2010 - www.Littleviews.com ]

>>   While many people think of Philadelphia in terms of American history, the Liberty Bell, and Betsy Ross, its more contemporary fame is that of a city covered with some 3,000 huge, outdoor murals, including the mosaics created by its local artist, Isaiah Zagar.

As a young man, Zagar (who is now in his 70s and still hard at work) was influenced by his travels to Peru and Bolivia, folk art, and the work of contemporary painters, such as Picasso (among many). Zagar's continuous mosaic output, however, makes Picasso's prolific painting career seem like the output of a lazy man.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

Zagar and his wife moved to South Street in Philadelphia in the 1970s when the area was run-down and housing inexpensive. Rather than letting the area continue its decay, he began his life's work by tiling walls of derelict buildings, bringing sparkle, wit, and beauty into everyone's lives. Today, his living legacy is preserved by Philadelphia's Magic Gardens.

The Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network was founded in 1984, after Zagar had begun beautifying his own neighborhood. Its aim was to inspire the creation of murals around the city in hopes that the murals would discourage graffiti. Today, The City of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program funds and tracks mural development.

While there are a lot of murals and mosaics to be seen in Philadelphia, this article looks exclusively at Zagar's art center known as Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, or PMG for short.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

I usually explore city centers by walking, but to do that, I need to see things in concentrated areas. To accomplish this in Philadelphia, I combined mural locations pinpointed on the Mural Mile Map with mosaic locations found in the Philadelphia's Magic Garden's brochure by hand on a tourist map. If you have the time to join guided tours, however, you'll be happy to learn that both organizations offer several.

My self-made route began at South 4th Street and South Street, headed west to Broad Street, then turned north on Broad Street. If you are not in a tour group, turn completely around frequently as you walk so you don't miss a thing. It's very easy to pass huge murals and/or mosaic walls when you just look forward.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

Information on Philadelphia's Magic Garden is detailed on its website. Tour prices are exceptionally reasonable. Special events and classes abound. I, however, stumbled upon PMG almost by accident and was enchanted by the surprises it offered. Based on my experience, I recommend that you first explore the PMGs surroundings before entering. You'd definitely miss exciting parts of the area if you limit yourself to just seeing the art center.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

All surfaces of the PMG, plus walls on several surrounding buildings, are covered with tiles, many of which are mirrors. These mirrors reflect the sky (blue, gray, pink), surrounding landscape, and even the people viewing the mosaic. The effect is that you never see the exact same mosaic pattern twice. Many of the white tiles you see on these photos, for example, are actually mirrors reflecting an overcast sky. When I returned on a sunny day, everything looked different as the "white" tiles were transformed into bright blue. No matter what the atmosphere, however, surfaces glitter.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

The PMG consists of two building; a standard building, plus the ruins of a building next door. All interior walls of both buildings are covered in tile and tile-related objects, such as bathroom fixtures (including toilets), broken pottery, bottles, and broken figurines. Generally, collections of found objects are used to "rebuild" missing walls, while more standard tiles are used to cover existing walls, floors, and stairs. Some tiles are made at the center by Zagar and his students.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

To see the buildings from the outside first, begin at the corner of South and 10th Streets and walk west (toward 11th Street). As you begin to see the PMG's glitter, you'll notice that it is surrounded by an alley. Enter the alley, observing mosaic murals on all sides. Completely circle the building before entering it at 1020 South Street.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

During my visit, the giant puppets of Cindi Olsman of Puppets on Parade were on exhibit under the title of The Resurrection of Wonder: Bringing Mythical Giants to Life. The photo above shows one of her giant puppets, plus provides a glimpse into the art center's interior.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

The building ruins next to the art center are especially fascinating! They contain so much colorful information in the form of mosaics that I actually felt disoriented the first time I walked completely through them!

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

The picture above is of my dear travel partner and husband, Phil, standing in one of the open-air passages.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

There is no particular mosaic theme throughout the facility, just theme fragments as dreamed up by the artist as he worked. Embedded, however, are many images of faces and bodies. Bottles are often used to create walls and tubular windows.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

There are thousands of points of interest throughout the PMG. In order to enjoy them, you need to greatly narrow your focus in order to see everything.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

I would have loved to sip expresso or wine on the bench in the passage above! The only thing missing from that magical alcove was a roof and beverage cart.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

Zagar's imagery definitely reminds me of Picasso's, especially his use of heavy outlines. The majority of human images he protrays are of his family, most prominently of his wife, Julia, and himself. That said, Zagar is also a teacher who works with students and peers to continuously create mosaics, and he makes liberal use of beautiful broken pottery and dishes, so not all of the imagery you see is expressly his, although most is.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

The photo above is of another roofless passage. Note the different concentrations of color. At first, I thought that strong colors were due to tile colors and patterns. Upon investigation, however, I discovered that colored grout was liberally used to define areas and outlines. Tile color appears to be secondary to the process of creating cohesive areas and, in many cases, it almost didn't matter.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

Many of the larger tiles are works of art by themselves and some, in fact, can be purchased and carried home.

Magic Gardens Art Center, Philadelphia

Related Information:

  • Zagar's wife, Julia, owns the Eye's Gallery (402 South Street) where you can purchase folk art imports. This building, especially around the back, is as brightly exuberant as Philadelphia's Magic Garden itself.

  • The Zagar's live at 826 South Street, which is also richly decorated.

  • Read Zagar's biography and view videos about his mosaic projects at www.phillymagicgardens.org/isaiah/about.

  • Learn more about the giant puppet exhibit, The Resurrection of Wonder: Bringing Mythical Giants to Life in Littleviews' article entitled Giant Puppets on Parade as Seen in Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. Check to see whether this exhibit has extended stays.

  • Purchase a stunning documentary on Isaiah called "In A Dream," made by his son, Jeremiah Zagar, at www.inadreammovie.com, or rent it from Netflix.

    NOTE: This documentary is not about mosaic-making techniques. Instead, it is a blow-by-blow, real-life view of the Zagar family. Most importantly, it provides some insight into Zagar's passions as affected by his experience of being horrifically molested as a child, an event which may have lead to his suicide attempt when he was in his late 20s. From then on, he has used most of his waking time to beautify every element of his environment with stunning, wall-to-wall mosaics. According to Zagar, there is nothing so bad that he could not make good . . . it's all in how you look at things. Did he eventually take on a lover? Hey, what artist has not (gee, only one?). See how the confession of an illit romance resolved itself within the context of his family and how, no matter what, his mosaics continue to bloom.

    While Zagar's imagery and productivity reminds me of Picasso's, you might be interested in seeing a documentary of a contemporary, Robert Crumb, a famous illustrator/cartoonist whose work also began appearing in the 1970s. Like Zagar, Crumb continuously draws and in some ways, the two have similar line-drawing (cartooning) styles. Both documentaries are intimate and way over-the-top, reminding us that "reality is real." Visit Crumb's website. View Crumb, the documentary via Netflix.

    Questions? Ask Karen at Karen@littleviews.com

    Article and photos by Karen Little. First published on 11/30/2010. All rights reserved by www.Littleviews.com.

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