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Think of all the things you have thrown away this week – an old shoe, a broken mirror, a loose button, an empty bottle of wine. Then picture all of it broken apart, artfully cobbled together with quirky objects like antique tiles and hand-carved Mexican dolls, and applied to a wall with cement, clay, paint and glue to form a gloriously colourful mural. This is the work of septuagenarian Philadelphia-born Isaiah Zagar: mosaic artist, world traveller, visionary, dumpster diver.

Eclectic inspiration
Zagar has been turning the city's trash into treasure for four decades, but he does not work solely with throwaway material. Many of his mosaics incorporate small mementos from his travels in China, India and Latin America. The artist cites his early experiences in Peru, where he served in the Peace Corps in the mid-1960s and got involved with a group of folk artists in Puno, as major influences in his ongoing body of work. But even Zagar admits that his work – filled as it is with visual symbols, snippets of poetry, souvenirs from across the globe, beautiful junk and cultural emblems – is somehow beyond definition. As the artist writes in his artist’s statement, “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.”

Public works
Today, Zagar's mosaic murals cover more than 50,000 sqft of Philadelphia’s downtown; walking down South Street, you can spot his vibrant installations climbing up the walls of apartment buildings, shops and houses.

But Zagar did not necessarily intend to become the city's most famous public artist. When he moved to Philadelphia with his wife, Julia, in the late 1960s, he was just looking for a break. As he told the New York Times in 2009, “No museum was willing to exhibit my work, so I put it on public display in the street.” The street – South Street – slowly revitalized as the couple purchased and restored abandoned buildings with large, blank exterior walls where Zagar could carry out his work. His mosaic murals still enliven the walls of two of his earliest canvases on South Street – his first apartment in the neighbourhood (826 South Street) and the his wife's folk art shop, the Eyes Gallery.

The Magic Gardens
In 1994, Zagar started a large-scale installation in one of South Street's vacant lots. He constructed walls, dug tunnels and carved out cave-like spaces throughout the 3,000-sqft lot, then began covering every surface with mosaics. These murals, perhaps his most personal to date, incorporated a significant amount of text – lines of poetry, whimsical allusions to his family life, references to current events and nods to his own artistic inspirations – into his signature patchwork of recycled bicycle wheels, abandoned dolls and colourful glass.

The project nearly came to an abrupt end 10 years later, when the lot's Boston-based owner announced his desire to sell. The outpouring of public support led to the foundation of a non-profit organization, Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, dedicated to preserving Zagar's latest project as well as his public murals around the neighbourhood. Today, the Magic Gardens serve as Zagar's headquarters: the space hosts folk concerts and events, the artist himself leads workshops, and a steady stream of visitors come to revel in this one-of-a-kind artistic playground.

An ongoing oeuvre
Despite his initial lack of success in the gallery scene, Zagar's pieces are now part of permanent collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. He has also installed mosaics in destinations as far-flung as the Gulf Shores State Park in Alabama and the village of Rojas de Cuauhtémoc in Oaxaca, Mexico.

But a walk down South Street and through the otherworldly passageways of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens – lined with fantastical murals that are at turns playful, eccentric and heartbreaking – still offers the most revealing look at the heart and mind of one of the city's great creative spirits.

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Trash to treasure: The mosaics of Isaiah Zagar’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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