An intimate conversation with a fixture of the Philadelphia art world.
PHILADELPHIA - The South Street district is a gritty, disheveled, and jaggedly beautiful area in Philadelphia. Filled with artist’s studios, bohemian hangouts, and eclectic boutiques, South Street has long been a bastion of counterculture, a haven for those who do not fit into mainstream society and go against the grain of the status quo. Driving around this eclectic neighborhood, it is apparent that a main fixture of South Street is the glittering mosaics by artist Isaiah Zagar. Zagar’s mosaic murals, often covering entire buildings in shattered glass, ceramic, and mirror, are metaphysical windows into a world of creativity; they synthesize the history of art and the international folk art communities into a uniquely beautiful visual statement that is all at once a reflection of Zagar’s surroundings and his imagination.
Well into his 70s, Zagar is a tall slip of a man, with a white beard, tanned skin, and a warm voice soaked in a heavy Brooklyn accent. Though Zagar spent a good portion of his life in Brooklyn, he is a native son of Philadelphia. Zagar had an interest in the visual arts from an early point in his life attending the renowned Pratt Institute. Zagar had a traditional arts education, one steeped in the study of art history, classical composition, and traditional mediums of expression. It was at age 19 that Zagar had an epiphanic moment in the arch of his understanding of what art is and could be. Discovering the folk art, assemblage installations of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York, Zagar realized that there were mediums, methodologies, and concepts beyond the confines of a canvas or a sculpture’s plinth that could be explored. Following his graduation from Pratt in the mid-1960s, Zagar and his wife Julia participated in the Peace Corps in Peru, working with local artisans to instrumentalize their craftwork to generate income. This time Peru left an indelible mark on Zagar, and continues to influence his artistic practice to this day.
Returning from South America in 1968, Zagar and his wife settled back in Philadelphia. They had a goal, a dream to establish an arts community in Philadelphia, one that would foster creativity, breed ideas, and serve as a mecca for young artists, thinkers, and makers. Thus, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens were born. “We marshaled our skills, my energy and [my wife Julia’s] energy, and we started both a gallery and a movement on South Street,” said Zagar. The South Street neighborhood has been transformed by Zagar and his fellow artists; what was once a neighborhood slated for demolition to make way for a new expressway, is now a fantastical maze of mirrored buildings, mosaic alleyways, and tiled walkways. The influence of the neighborhood has been very powerful in the visual influence of Zagar’s work. “I’m in awe every time I walk out in the street…the magic of the street,” remarked Zagar. “South Street has influenced me as much as I’ve influenced South Street.” The gardens and art projects on South Street have been expanding and evolving over the past four decades, building on the idea of the artist’s collective – bringing in various artists from around the city and around the world to participate, with Zagar at the helm. It is Zagar’s fervent love of the Philadelphia he drives through daily, marveling at its unique neighborhoods, which fueled his interest in being a part of the GOOD Cities Project, in collaboration with Ford. To have the chance to illuminate the South Street area through his unique perspective via art and share that perspective on a large scale was an opportunity Zagar did not wish to pass up. The piece Zagar is creating for the GOOD Cities project blends all elements of his practice, mosaic, community involvement, and a love for a city that he has made a commitment to and that has made a commitment to him in return.
Stay tuned to the GOOD Cities Project homepage in November, where Isaiah Zagar's visual love letter to Philadelphia will be exhibited. And, if you're in the Philadelphia area in November, keep an eye out to see his work exhibited on local billboards.