Philadelphia's Magic Gardens will grow on you
By Diane W. Stoneback
November 13, 2010
Isaiah Zagar's fertile imagination has grown into The Magic Gardens,
an amazing planting that spills out along Philadelphia's famed South
Street and has spread well beyond the former vacant lots and
buildings where he began.
Working with grout and mosaics, rather than dirt and seeds, the
artist has dug in to create an other-worldly place that shakes up
your well-paved expectations of urban space.
Tucked between city shops and across the street from two grocery
stores and a parking garage, it's a wild and wacky labyrinth that
covers a quarter of a city block. It's also a fitting tribute to the
days when South Street was immortalized by R&B group The Orlons as
"the place where all the hippies meet."
Exploring this gated maze of pathways, stairways, archways and walls
that make up the gardens is like climbing on board a wildly painted
VW bus with a free-spirited leftover hippy at the wheel. And Zagar,
71, has miles to go before his driving days as a free-spirited artist
and "Rambo" of recycling come to an end.
Visiting can be a psychedelic experience. There's no way that you'll
really "see" everything that's here. There's just too much. It's in
front of you. Beside you. Under your feet. Over your head. It's
colorful shapes and colors. It's words and objects as well as
designs. It is sparkles and reflections as well as shadows. It is
The intricate assortment of items he has selected to build the mosaic
sculpture that lines your path is intriguing. It could be the setting
for a grand scavenger hunt. Find and photograph the elephant. Where's
the glass dove? How many eyes do the mosaics contain? Can you
identify the single tile made by Bucks County's Henry Chapman Mercer
one of the artists who inspired Zagar that's hidden in this maze?
As you wander, you'll be amazed by what the artist has picked up for
his "materials." I spotted a broken dinner plate in the same pattern
as our family's dishes when I was growing up. A friend spotted a
duplicate of the drinking glass she uses in her bathroom.
Zagar salvages whatever he can find and whatever strikes his fancy,
from broken mirrors, ceramic tiles, discarded bottles, shattered
plates, pitchers, teapots, sculptures and figurines to old bicycle
wheels and cooling fans. Appropriate to the garden theme, he has
scattered plastic flowers here and there along the pathways. When
asked how he gathered so many liquor bottles, he jokes, "I drank it all."
Although the gardens are "finished" (he still moves items around and
adds new "finds" now and then), he's currently working to cover the
interior and exterior of a large warehouse on Watkins Street. He's
covering both its interior and exterior with his mosaics and then
will turn it into a community art and performance center.
He's got plenty of helpers gathering materials. Homeless people bring
him bottles and other bits they find. He has done some dumpster
driving and "reclamation" work from abandoned and condemned
buildings. Neighborhood residents even drop off leftover ceramic
tiles from bathroom projects at the garden's 1020 South St. entrance.
He also gets some help with his work. Adults who want to learn more
about his techniques pay $300 apiece for the occasional concentrated
weekend workshops when they can work with Zagar on a mural.
Two years ago, Michele Obama and her daughters made doily tiles
(created by pushing doilies into clay and then firing the tiles) when
they visited the gardens. Their tiles are embedded in one of his murals.
In the 40 years since he and his wife finished a three-year Peace
Corps stint in Peru and dared to settle in what was then an urban
wasteland of crumbling buildings and boarded-up windows, Zagar has
blanketed some 130 urban spaces with his mosaics. He scrambles along
on scaffolding to conceal graffiti-covered walls, blanket storefronts
and wrap entire buildings with his work.
The Zagars also are credited with helping to spearhead the effort
that sparked South Street's Renaissance in the 1970s and saved it
from becoming the location for a proposed Crosstown Expressway.
Ever since, he has been on a roll. He started by covering the front
and interior of his wife's shop at 4th and South streets, The Eyes
Gallery. Then he worked his mosaics up the stairs and into their
apartment above the shop. Next, he fanned out in the neighborhood,
buying still-affordable buildings and renovating them to cover them
with his art. "I got into being a landlord that way, because people
rent apartments from me. But they're not apartments. They're art," he says.
During the warmer months, The Magic Gardens offers neighborhood
walking tours to see more of his mural work.
Zagar tells a story about a man who saw him working and then asked
Zagar's wife, "What's he on?" Julia responded: "Art." The man said,
"You don't understand. I mean what's he on?" Julia answered again: "Art."
Of those early days, the artist says, "I was recovering from a
nervous breakdown that came with the culture shock of coming home
from three years in Peru. I felt I had no career. No positive
outcome. I needed to be in a place that was a failure, too. A place I
could try to build up and if it didn't work, a wrecking ball was
going to come anyway. South Street was that place.
"Settling here was like living on the edge. My wife and I were the
only people who bought a building on South Street in 1968."
He started working on what would become The Magic Garden's outdoor
space in 1994. At the time, it was a vacant lot and its owner said he
didn't mind if Zagar excavated it and cleaned it up for a little
mosaic project. Fourteen years later, it has become a mind-blowing
"Clay and mirrors are magic materials. If you start with them and
then add the mind, it's exciting," he says. But he's not about to
point out the sections of his work that are his favorites. "I don't
want to impose on people by telling them what they should look at or
where they'll find the beginning or the end of it," he says, "but I'm
always curious about what they think."
Recalling critics' comments, Zagar says, "One observed that my work
isn't art. That it's like a volcano. Like a mind exploding … Wow, I like that!"
He adds, "Another said I'm crazy and that my art looks like I work
with one finger in an electric socket while drawing with my other
hand. I like that, too."
What will he do when he finishes the Watkins Street warehouse? He
says, "If South Street would give me the buildings and I had the
volunteers to help and set up scaffolding, I could make it the most
fascinating street in the whole world … maybe even on Mars, too."
Before vanishing into his nearby studio, he adds, "I realized this
morning that the key to art is not talent. It's not even skill. It's
having insane ambition."
Visit The Magic Gardens
•Where: 1020 South St., Philadelphia
•When: Winter hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Fri. and Sat.
•How much: $5 for adults, $2 for children 6-12.
•Tip 1: Guided tours ($8 for adults; $5 for kids) are conducted at
noon and 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 4 p.m. on Sundays.
•Tip 2: Have fun with your kids by attending a Family Jam noon to 4
p.m. on the second Sunday of the month. You'll do art projects
together like making pins from broken tiles, stenciling, reverse
painting or making masks.
•Tip 3: On scheduled weekends from March through October, adults can
sign on for two-day mosaic mural workshops with Isaiah Zagar. Cost is $300.
•Info: http://www.phillymagicgardens.org , 215-733-0390.