The Magical Gardens of Philadelphia’s Isaiah Zager

Visitors marvel at interior art of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a unique, multi-level, walk-through artistic experience. Exploring one of its many wildly decorated spaces are Safa Browne of the University of Pennsylvania, Tania Calle of Williams College and Zara Wermers of Tufts University.

Philadelphia’s nineteen-year-old Magic Gardens is a sprawling, multi-level work of outsider art by Isaiah Zagar executed across a space that once held three row homes. Architectural in size with fantastical interior shapes, every inch of every surface — floors, walls, ceilings — is covered in mosaics made from individual ceramic artworks along with assemblies of rusted bicycle wheels, colored bottles, smashed and whole kitchen china, shards of mirror, twists of iron and other odd and ends of folk art and industrial debris. (Google map)

Artist Isaiah Zagar in his element
Often on hand to regale visitors with tales of his Magic Gardens and colorful career is 80-year-old Isaiah Zagar, a formally trained fine artist (Pratt Institute) who went on to become one of the country’s most acclaimed mosaic masters.
A second of the Magic Gardens artworks
One twelve-foot section of interior wall contain’s Zagar’s declaration of the purpose and goal of his massive work of concrete and found objects: “I Built This Sanctuary to be inhabited by my ideas and my fantasies.”
Crowds line up Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
A major Philadelphia tourist site, the Magic Gardens draws busloads of visitors. On good weather days (much of the maze-like structure is open to the sky and elements) they begin lining up along its junk-art sidewalk wall.
South Street is one of Philadelphia's famous tourist attractions
The site is part of Philadelphia’s South Street District that, over the last 50 years, evolved from being inner-city wasteland to a commercially viable and often zany celebration of local culture and arts.
In an artistic grotto of broken glass, bent metal and slathered concrete
Shanarra Turner, a student from the University of Michigan, wanders through one of the tunnels of three-dimensional artistic clutter.
Architectural arches in Philadelphia's Magic Garden are covered in pieces of broken mirrow.
Another visitor passes through the arches where tens of thousands of mirror shards cover every surface, creating different light effects throughout the day.
Main stairway of the Magic Gardens
The largest and most ornate of the several stairways throughout the structure leads to the lower labyrinthine area that was once the basement of two row homes.
Ceramic tiles cover stairways in the Magic Gardens
A view from the top of the main stairway reveals the mosaics and ceramic art that cover the stairs.
Bottles and old bicycle wheels are a frequently used construction in the Magic Gardens
Part of a story-high wall features a “bicycle wheel window” to an inner courtyard.
A quiet nook with ceramic tile seats
This is a quiet nook where visitors can relax on ceramic seats as they contemplate their experience.
A tunnel of mosaic artworkers in the Magic Gardens
In 1968, after a stint with the Peace Corps in Peru, Zagar and his wife, Julia, moved to the then-dilapidated, low-rent neighborhood of South Street in Philadelphia, opening a shop for South American folk art.
A giant human figure waves at crowds moving through the Magic Gardens
After opening the Eyes Gallery on South Street in 1968, Zagar began creating an attention-getting mosaic on the front of the shop; it was the first of what would ultimately become hundreds of mosaic art works on Philadelphia buildings.
From a lofty observation spot, a visitor looks agog at the Magic Gardens below her
It took Zagar twenty years to build the entire Gardens that consumed enormous quantities of cement and put his skills as a ceramic artist, graphic artist, self-taught architect and highly productive dumpster diver to good use.
Courtyard of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
In what serves as the main courtyard of the the Magic Gardens, a docent (red shoes) explains the overall structure to a group of student tourists.
Interior ceramic work on the walls.
In a dramatic change of color palette, this area of wild oranges and reds is part of the art gallery and meeting spaces in the closed-in row home structure that anchors one end of the Gardens.
A grotto of abstract human faces executed in ceramic tiles
The many portraits embedded in the walls are of real people, either artists Zagar admires, artists that he works with or other peolple who have played some role in his life and work.
Folk art objects from South America are embedded in the walls
Zagar and his wife’s Eyes Gallery are still in the South American folk art business with a good deal of their imports have ending up in the Garden’s walls.
Thousands of bottles and tons of cement were used in the Magic Garden displays
Zagar’s Magic Gardens began in 1994. It owes its existence to a teenage experience Zagar had as a young artist visiting the mountainside outsider art mansion of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York. The creative kinship can be recognized in photos of the late Schmidt’s site.
Art gallery exhibits at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
Aside from being a tourist site, the actual converted rowhouse that anchors one end of the Gardens is fitted out as an art gallery with a constantly changing series of exhibits by both local and national artists.
A lone visitor is dwarfed one of the Magic Garden galleries.
Also a community site, the Gardens hosts a wide range of gatherings and celebrations, along with educational sessions for budding artists interested in exploring the mechanics and aesthetics of creating architectural and other kinds of mosaic works.