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.
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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.
The article 'Trash to treasure: The mosaics of Isaiah Zagar' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.