I thought I’d go for a change of pace and direction today with this appreciation of a quite exceptional man, Isaiah Zagar. For non-American’s among you who may not be familiar with the name, Isaiah Zagar is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found on more than 200 public walls throughout the city of Philadelphia and elsewhere; best known for his murals in or around Philadelphia’s South Street.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, Zagar studied Painting & Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. His work is heavily influenced by his travels and the personal connections he has made with international folk and visionary artists. Isaiah and his wife Julia served with the Peace Corps for three years in Peru in the mid-1960s, working with folk artists in the Puno region near Lake Titicaca. On their return to Philadelphia they began their lifelong work of creating public art and fostering creativity in all its varied forms. The launch pad was the opening of the Eyes Gallery, a folk art shop on South Street. In December 1968, this was the site of Zagar’s first mosaic.
Isaiah Zaghar has also completed artist residencies in China, and India, and held a residency at the Kohler Co. Pottery Foundry in Wisconsin.
Isaiah Zagar’s magnum opus is his vast and visionary mosaic environment, The Magic Gardens of South Philadelphia. Here Zagar covered the interior and exterior walls, ceilings, and floors of nearly half a block with mosaic to create what is, in effect, an overwhelming and inspiring 40 year personal diary. The Magic Gardens is both a three dimensional, immersive art installation and a museum gallery space. The mosaics are inlaid with poetry, quotes, names of artists who have inspired Zagar, as well as portraits and forms of people and animals. The gardens use a variety of materials, including bottles, bike wheels and folk art. Zagar says of his personal creative inspirations,
“In 1959 when I was 19 years old I was introduced to the folk art environment of Clarence Schmidt, My Mirrored Hope, Woodstock, New York, USA. Soon after in 1961 there was a groundbreaking exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, in New York City called The Art of Assemblage,” explains Zagar. “Because that exhibition included assemblages of artists like Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Kurt Schwitters, Antonio Gaudi – alongside of untrained brickaleurs Clarence Schmidt, Simon Rodia and Joseph Ferdinand Cheval – that gave me as a trained artist the rationale to include their concepts as manifestations of fine art. At a crucial time in my life it allowed me to begin what could be called a life’s work making the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a labyrinthine mosaic museum that incorporates all my varied knowledge and skills.”
Zagar first began Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens by cleaning up two vacant lots adjacent to a property he purchased in 1994. After clearing the lots, setting up a chain-link fence, and mosaicking his own property, he began to mosaic the fence and other parts of the abandoned lots. In 2002 the owner of the lots demanded Zagar buy the property for $300,000 or he would have it demolished. Through fundraising, private donations, and lot of community support, the property was able to be saved, and the non-profit organization, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, was formed.
The Painted Bride Art Center at 230 Vine Street, Pennsylvania was founded in 1969 as an artist-centered performance space and gallery particularly oriented to presenting the work of local artists. It presents dance, jazz, world music, visual arts, theatre and performance art. From 1991 to 2000 Zagar mosaiced the entire outside of the Center, a work he entitled Skin of the Bride, which he donated to the center. At the front of the Painted Bride Art Center, the text along the top of the mosaic reads “The Bride has many suitors, even”, a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.
Zagar continues to create mosaic murals in Philadelphia, mainly around the South Street area, and hosts a weekend workshop during the last weekend of each month April – October where participants can assist him in creating a new mural in the community. Much of Zagar’s work is completed free of charge or is commissioned by businesses or people in the area.
Isaiah Zagar featured in the 2008 documentary, In A Dream, created by his son, Jeremiah.
A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, November 2017.