Last summer, while visiting family in Philadelphia, I had the fortune to stopover at South Street’s Magic Gardens; an unusual place of mosaicked artistic passion, gallery, and community arts center…the brainchild of Isaiah Zagar.
These “gardens” aren’t filled with flowers, but the glistening myriad of fanatical creations made from colorful reclaimed pieces of pottery, tiles, mirrors, and other found objects as well as contributions from the community. Covering an indoor/outdoor space equivalent to half a city block, 74-year-old Isaiah Zagar has been growing his garden since the late 1960’s, and he’s still tilling it. He and his wife, Julia, have a mission to beautify, vitalize and breathe new life into South Street.
When Isaiah and Julia moved to South Street over forty years ago, the area was being slated for demolition by the city in order to create a highway. Due to the proposed construction, the area was desolate. The Zagars were one of the first people to come to this area and begin to turn its image around. They opened the Eyes Gallery on 401 South Street in 1968, which was the first property that Isaiah would mosaic. Here they still showcase and sell the art of Latin-American artists.
The Zagars went on to purchase and rent out several other buildings, and Isaiah would go on to create several other mosaicked spaces and public murals. He bought the building that currently houses Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens in 1994. Over the next 14 years, Isaiah began creating the Magic Gardens, fencing off the two vacant lots next door. In 2002, due to increased property values on South Street, the landowner of the two vacant lots wanted to sell the land. Together with members of the community, Isaiah was able to purchase the lots. With this purchase “Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens” was born, and is currently dedicated to preserving Isaiah’s works, and teaching the public about mosaic and folk art.
Sensory overload doesn’t begin to describe the Magic Gardens. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it…an intriguing, invigoratingly exciting, visually stimulating space! Once inside, it takes a moment to realize that all of the 3000 square foot space…walls, floors, ceilings, niches are covered with a labyrinthine of Zagar’s fantastical mosaicked world of artistic dedication and inspiration…a geographic renaissance.
Many stairways, nooks and crannies wind throughout the building, taking you through courtyards of ethnic art popping up here and there among an abundance of green plants. Covered stairs and walkways feature distinctive sayings spelled out in tiles. Multi-segmented faces made of bottle-bottoms and glittering mirrors watch as visitors explore the caverns and rooms. A chandelier of bicycle parts hangs just above some central seating; other chairs and benches (be sure to see those shaped like turtles) welcome visitors to take a seat. Inside the fully tiled gallery, newspaper articles about Zagar’s 40-plus years in Philadelphia hang prominently, along with photos of and letters from famous visitors.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is so full, that it’s truly impossible to take it all in. I was taken back by the incredible dedication to beauty and ingenuity! When looking at all of these spaces, there’s a childlike feeling, as if all the art subconsciously exploded; no apologies…purely unlimited expression. You’ll soon be mesmerized in contemplating the mystery of how many individual pieces of broken ceramic, odd items, and uniquely shaped shards were used to create the place’s images and quotations. Spend an hour or more there, and you’ll leave entranced, just maybe inspired to create something yourself.
I loved seeing this fanciful side of Philadelphia! Now a nonprofit organization, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens invites visitors to enjoy its visual candy with guided or self-guided tours. For complete information, visit: phillymagicgardens.org