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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

Philadelphia's Magic Garden: Isaiah Zagar's public expression of art features recycled materials

Feb 20, 2011 09:41PM ● By Linda Sechrist and Don Moore

Isaiah Zagar

What was once an artist’s response to the lack of funds for buying canvass to paint on is now a phenomenon known by not only nearly every Philadelphian but also by people from around the United States.

In the late 1960s, when the idea for using objects he found in his neighborhood occurred to Isaiah Zagar as a serious medium for the expression of his art, he could never have guessed that the City of Brotherly Love was on it’s way to having a magical garden. Now covering half a city block with a myriad of recycled objects, that lend a plethora of texture and color, his South Street neighborhood mosaic installation, which includes a fully mosaiced indoor gallery and a massive outdoor labyrinthine mosaic sculpture, is not only more than capable of adding some sunshine to any passerby’s day but also qualifies Zagar, and his artist wife Julia, as two of the world’s greatest contributors to the cause of recycling and the revitalization of neighborhoods through art. The Zagar’s helped spur the revitalization of the South Street neighborhood by purchasing and renovating derelict buildings, often adding colorful mosaics on both their private and pubic walls.

To the outside world, it may appear that Zagar worked for more than 40 years to evolve the spaces, which he and Julia have called home for more than 40 years. To Zagar it is an act of expression and love for art. Nearly the same as breathing—it’s impossible for him not to do.

In 1968, when the couple settled in South Philly after three years in Peru with the Peace Corp, the neighborhood was in derelict shape and not exactly the place to start a family and business. But they believed their connection with the art society, and a commitment to making the world a better place, solidified their place in South Philly. The public, however, did not always appreciate the non-traditional art offerings, which changed the look of the neighborhood. Fortunately, time has embraced Zagar’s talent and his efforts, which have been very influential with the "South Street Renaissance."

Zagar’s life has taken some twists and turns, much like his art, but he is steadfast in his purpose to foster civic engagement, community beautification and artistic collaboration through his work, which defies a certain genre and cannot be compartmentalized. Literally set in cement, it cannot be changed or altered. In this way it becomes a final statement, for viewers to analyze or interpret as they see it.

Zagar’s vernacular art, which contains many common things that we all can identify with—broken pieces of tile and mirror, as well as bicycle wheels and other ordinary objects, is pieced together in an uninterrupted sequence that surprises and tugs at the senses. When asked how he does it, his eyes twinkle and answer is simple: “I know exactly what I want to do, but I can’t explain or put it into words. I just know it.”

His recycled content consists of items donated by the many people who want to contribute to the cause. The list of projects, nonstop and so numerous, he gladly accepts help from enthusiastic people who contribute their weekends learning, creating, and helping to further expand the impact of his work.

In 2001, his creation took on its own life when the Boston-based owner of the once-vacant lot located at 1022-1026 South Street decided to sell the land in response to rising values. Unwilling to witness the destruction of Zaga’s neighborhood art environment, the community rushed to support him. The newly titled Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens was incorporated as a non-profit organization with the intention of preserving and promoting Zagar’s works of art at the site of his Magic Gardens and throughout the South Street region.

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is now a permanent art institution that is open year round to visitors. Still growing organically, and trusting in his life’s journey and technique, Zagar continues to enhance this important link between the community and the city at large.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens, 1020 South St., Philadelphia 19147. Call 215-733-0390 or visit

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