The Magic of Mosaic Art in Philadelphia
By Jim Brennan
Comedian, art collector, and musician, Steve Martin, once quipped, “You just can’t sing a depressing song when you’re playing the banjo.” That’s the same effect the mosaic tile artwork around South Street has on a viewer. Try to frown while walking south on Jessup Street (more like an alleyway) off of Fitzwater in South Philadelphia, an entire city block of mosaics within arm’s reach on either side. Come out at the other end of Jessup, cross street and continue walking the neighborhood between South and Catherine Streets from 8th to 12th Streets and you begin to wonder if this eclectic outdoor art gallery will ever end. At each turn just about every stationary structure is decorated with mosaic art.
These mosaics will never be confused with intricate medieval mosaics found in places like the Basilica of Notre Dame in Lyon, France, but they are captivating in their own right, not the least of which are the sheer volume and unusual compilation of materials. The mosaics are composed of tiles, mirrors, colorful glass bottles of every shape and size, ceramic coffee mugs, plates, silverware, bicycle tire rims, broken cookery, and a myriad of other items typically found at flea markets, antique shops or junkyards. And it’s not merely the odd combination of items or their randomness that arouses the senses, but designs that defy description, like floating humans and suspended toilets.
There are mosaics of faces, or just a face, perhaps even an eye or mouth; birds, fishes, flowers, scriptural verse, clowns, nudes, poetry. At first glance the works might be mistaken as nothing more than an odd collection of a madman, until closer inspection reveals what they truly are, creative artwork. The more attention you pay, the more captivating they become. Examine a face, for instance, and you might find another face buried within, or the bottom of a wine bottle, a teacup, a plate. I’ve never visited another place on earth with an array of mosaics that encompass an entire city neighborhood—more than 200 public walls throughout the city—and they are merely the ones accounted for.
South Street is the main corridor for the mosaics, as well as other major thoroughfares including Fitzwater and Catherine Streets. But tiny obscure side streets like Alder, Sartain, Jessup, and Kater are also decorated with the artwork. There are even nameless alleyways narrow enough to extend your arms and palm the mosaic-tiled walls on either side.
Walk along South Street between 10th and 11th Streets and you will encounter the epicenter of Philadelphia mosaic mural arts—the Magic Garden. The Magic Garden is the creation of award winning mosaic mural artist, Isaiah Zagar, who began revitalizing buildings and creating his mosaics in his South Street neighborhood when he moved to Philadelphia from New York City with his wife Julia in the 1960s. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Zagar received his B.F.A in Painting & Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City and completed artist residencies in China and India, as well as the Kohler Company Pottery Foundry in Wisconsin. He discovered the folk art installations of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York who influenced him along with Picasso, Jean Debuffet, Kurt Schwitters, Antonio Gaudi, Simon Rodia, and Joseph Ferdinand Cheval who inspired him to include the concepts of untrained artists as manifestations of fine art.
Zagar began work on the Magic Garden in 1994. Mosaics adorn the entire interior and exterior of the property, from the cellar to the roof; its alcoves, patios, stairways, tunnels, grottos, even the restrooms. The wall outside the entrance, with blue, green and brown bottles lining the top, tiles with smiling lips and eyes, is an indication of what is to come. An iron gate reveals the tiled courtyard, mosaic and mirrored walls reaching three stories high, and colorful tiled steps descending to the cellar—an appetizer for what is to come after passing through the entrance. Inside is the main course—dazzling spiral mirrors, rainbow mannequins with four arms and multicolored gentiles, otherworldly reptiles, tributes to international mosaic artists, intricately designed archways, leaded glass, mesmerizing stairways, verse such as, “Sources of Inspiration” and “Lucid Dreaming,” and a restroom completely decked out in mosaic.
The Magic Garden was threatened in 2002 when the owner of the lot decided to sell the property and called for the mosaics to be dismantled. The community rushed to support Zagar and after a two-year legal battle the Magic Garden was incorporated into a nonprofit to preserve the artwork in the South Street neighborhood.
Since completing the Magic Garden in 2008, Zagar moved on to an even larger mosaic installation at his warehouse at 10th and Watkins Streets in South Philadelphia. He is covering the interior and exterior walls with his signature colorful mosaics. The warehouse includes 9,000 square feet of space, three times the size of the Magic Garden.
Other works of Isaiah Zagar are included in permanent collections of numerous art institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and has been featured in solo exhibitions throughout Philadelphia area.
If you subscribe to the philosophy that you reap what you sow, then Isaiah Zagar must revel in his creation every time he leaves his South Street residence. From the community garden across the street to his walk to the Magic Garden, he is surrounded by his own creation.
Philadelphia Magic Garden is open from 11:00 am to 6 pm daily (beginning in 2016 they will be closed on Tuesdays.) They also offer group tours, exhibitions and workshops. For more information visit their website at http://www.phillymagicgardens.org.