Written and Photographed By: Megan Pasche
Philadelphia’s South Street is probably most well known for the influx of bars and restaurants that exist there; it’s busy, it’s loud, and it definitely shows a more colourful side of Philly. But its most colourful address, #1020, is reason enough to venture down there, because at #1020, you’ll find Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. You should notice it in among the eclectic shops and small cafes; the outside wall is a giant mosaic that’s pretty hard to miss. A small sandwich board sitting on the sidewalk outside the mosaicked door urges you to go in; seriously, follow the sign’s advice.
It was a place we had never heard about before, but came across during some feverish last minute googling efforts before boarding a bus from Washington to Philadelphia. Once we read about it, my friend Kristen and I came to the same conclusion: forget the Liberty Bell, we have to go to the Magic Gardens first.
Philly’s Magic Gardens is the creation of artist Isaiah Zagar. It is essentially a massive indoor/outdoor, but mostly outdoor, mosaic gallery. Despite its name, it is actually not so much a garden in the traditional sense, as it is a twisting, turning labyrinth spanning half a block constructed of glass bottles, handmade mosaic tiles, mirrors, dishes, bicycle wheels, dolls, and an endless amount of found objects. It is, hands down, one of the coolest places I have ever had the chance to visit. The minute we stepped inside, our mouths kind of gaped open a little bit due to the surprising beauty of it all. It was like falling down the rabbit hole directly into the mind of a creative genius.
There were so many nooks and crannies, and simply so much to look at that it was impossible to take it all in during the first go around. We turned one way and we were suddenly in an alley filled primarily with mosaics made up of broken mirrors. The sun reflected off the glass and made the whole area actually appear to sparkle. We turned another corner and found ourselves in a tight little space with built in seats, allowing us to sit down and really immerse ourselves in the surrounding craziness. The hand-painted tiles spelled out quotes, names, dates, places; it was the story of Zagar’s life so far. The art was under our feet, it towered tall above our heads; it was every way we turned, and it was amazing.
Isaiah Zagar is an award-winning artist that was born in Philadelphia, went to art school in New York, and has travelled extensively around the world. He and his wife Julia served in the Peace Corps in Peru for three years and that period of time greatly influenced his art. His inspiration for mosaic came about after a chance meeting with Clarence Schmidt, an artist from Woodstock, New York, who made some incredibly creative and grandiose folk art installations way up high in the Catskill Mountains. Isaiah and Julia moved back to Philadelphia in the 1960s and set out to foster a creative milieu on South Street. Their first endeavour was the opening of the Eyes Gallery. They continued to buy up derelict buildings and beautify them with mosaic. Currently, Zagar is in his 70s, and continues to take on projects that are helping to make his city renowned for its art scene. His most recent project is the Watkins Street Warehouse, a 10,000-square-foot space Zagar intends to cover with mosaic. He also hopes to eventually open a theatre on the second floor.
In his artist statement, Zagar says, “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 one a sense of heaven and hell simultaneously.”
Zagar first began work on the Magic Gardens in 1994, which was started in a vacant lot close to his studio. His first move was to fence off the area in order to protect it. The next 14 years were spent digging out tunnels and grottos, making walls, and tiling and grouting a space that spanned 3000 square feet. In 2002, the owner of the lot, who was based in Boston, decided he wanted to sell due to rising property costs. Not wanting to see Zagar’s work destroyed, the community rallied around the artist to save his creation. It was officially dubbed Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and became an incorporated non-profit.
In addition to the Magic Gardens site, Zagar has created public art all around Philadelphia. A lot of it is concentrated in the South Street area, and to date, he has created over 130 mosaic murals around Philly. He takes what other people might see as disposable, and turns it into something beautiful. When he first came onto the art scene, no gallery wanted to display his work, so he brought his art to the people he knew would accept and embrace it: the public. Now he is one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated artists, and has art displays in The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
Some may look at a place like Magic Gardens, think it’s bizarre, and wonder, “why?” The simple answer to that question is of course, “why not?” Either way, it’s making people think, which is one of the objectives of art in the first place. And really, any artist that can create such an intricate piece, and construct a space that is truly a little bit magical in a world that often isn’t so, is deserving of some kudos. The Magic Gardens is a place you can’t really fully capture with just words and photos; it needs to be seen, to be felt, and to be pondered, to be truly appreciated.
Magic Gardens is located at 1020 South Street
Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and $3 for ages 6 to 12, and free for kids 5 and under.
[box type=”shadow”]Throughout the year, Magic Gardens offers numerous different activities and events. In addition to guided daily tours (you also have the option of just wandering through on your own), they offer mosaic workshops with Isaiah himself, theatrical performances, live music performances, date night tours and the opportunity to rent out the area for private events like parties or even weddings.[/box]