In the heart of Philadelphia, not quite in the Headhouse district and not quite in the West District, but straddled on a non-trendy part of the city’s trendy South Street, there is a fairly well-guarded secret. It’s the type of secret, typically discovered only if a “little birdie” has told you about it, or if you just happen to be walking down the street and your eyes can’t help but feast on the glimmering mirrors and treasures covering its labyrinthine-style walls. It’s known as Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Ellen Owens is the Executive Director of the Magic Gardens, and she laughs as she recounts some of the calls taken from people who contact them thinking they’ve reached a magic store, or a sweet little city garden, only to discover they’ve got the wrong spot. What they don’t realize they’ve actually found is a one-of-a-kind mosaic sculpture “garden”–a site with the mission to preserve the mosaics of artist Isaiah Zagar, while educating visitors about folk art and history of Philadelphia’s South Street all while inspiring creativity and community engagement.
What’s in a name?
The name of this non-profit space was established rather spur of the moment, after Zagar, the founding artist, was working with attorneys to establish its non-profit status and had to quickly have a name to put down on forms. Owens says the name was a natural, because that’s how people say they feel about it when they first see the place. “I wish I had a recording of all the responses people have because they range from some things that I can’t actually say out loud to total exclamations of awe and wonder. They’re overwhelmed, in a delighted sort of way. They just want to explore, both visually and physically. It’s unlike anything they have a mental scheme of so they try to wrap their heads about what’s going on in the space,” Owen says.
Re-cycled and Re-worked
What you have a chance to see is a completely covered indoor space done in tiling and a massive outdoor mosaic sculpture garden that spans half a block. You can view Zagar’s hand-made tiles, folk art, colored glass, bottles, thousands of mirrors, re-cycled and re-worked kitchen plates, mugs, china, knick-knacks and more all worked into this massive art space. It’s breathtaking for children and adults alike.
Some of the more unusual material used? Hailing from around the world—there are florescent light bulbs, sculptures from his wife Julia that were supposed to be repaired, but that somehow ended up going “missing” and later incorporated in the mosaic, even parts of used bicycles from the hip vintage bike company, VIA bikes–which is located down the street. If you look very carefully, there’s a mold of a piece of bread in one of the walls—that looks so real people assume it’s a piece of bread. There are also molds of people’s hands, feet, and faces that were donated by friends of the family.
Other Zagar Projects
Zagar has worked on the garden for about 14 years at this point–while also working on all kinds of other projects. Owens says he typically has about 6 projects going on at the same time. His first mosaic project was his wife’s gallery, the Eye’s Gallery, specializing in Latin American crafts. It is nearby the gardens, and was done back in 1968. She explains the couple helped spur revitalization of the area, buying and renovating derelict buildings, often adding mosaics to both their private and public walls. Zagar’s house is two blocks away and is entirely mosaic inside and out–except for his bedroom–his wife put her foot down on that room.
Owens points out that Zagar is fond of dogs, and owns a standard poodle named “Blue” who acts as his shadow. Kids can look for dog images hidden throughout the space as well. If interested, kids can ask for a scavenger hunt form allowing them to competitively search the space for different objects.
The Art Birds
Owens mentions other animals who are influencing the installation-literally. “We have birds that love the installation–including a morning dove named Gertie, after Isaiah’s mother,” Owens says. “She builds a nest in the garden in the same place every year. We also have a robin that’s made a nest in the chandelier,” she adds.
A program called Family Jams for anyone from 3 years old to adult—is offered the second Sunday of every month free with admission. They teach different themed hands-on activities that somehow relate to the gardens. Examples include scavenger hunts, Mexican crafts-Gods Eyes, projects related to Antonio Gaudi, potato Stamps and paper collages.
This July 28th they’ll spearhead the annual “Art/Gage“– a street fair/festival engaging art, artists, food vendors and street performers.
Playing host to more than 3,000 school students a year, the Magic Gardens offers weekday and weekend tours and a walking tour through the neighborhood allowing visitors to see 24 other mosaics around the area–often found on streets that few walk through.
Open 362 days a year, your chances of seeing the artist in action are pretty good. Zagar’s studio is above the gallery, and he’s frequently seen about doing his “mosaic thing”. But unlike some famous artists, Zagar makes himself accessible to the public. If people have questions and they’re interested, Owens says she’s seen him stop what he’s doing to answer them. They offer “Afternoons with the Artist”-allowing you to spend a Sunday afternoon from 1p-4p hanging with him in his studio.
From art, to animals, to unusual objects, no green thumb is needed for the entire family to appreciate what Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens offers.