PHILADELPHIA – Isaiah Zagar has spent more than 20 years creating Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a huge mosaic mural made from a variety of materials, and becoming a local cultural icon in the process.
Viewing the work is like taking a trip through the mind of the 80-year-old artist, who has been diagnosed as bipolar, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens executive director Emily Smith told EFE, adding that behind the colorful facade, visitors could see the darkness, unhappiness and high anxiety that plague Zagar.
Smith said the artist has battled depression his entire life.
The walls of the building used by Zagar for his mural are covered with chunks of tile, empty bottles, shards of mirror glass and an endless variety of other materials, giving life to the Magic Gardens.
The mural features figures, faces, nude bodies and messages that have spread like a vine to the surrounding city blocks in South Philadelphia, where Zagar has completed 220 murals.
The artist began working on murals in the 1960s, a time when Smith said residents left each other alone and no one objected to any kind of artistic projects.
Zagar began what is now known as Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens in 1991 on South Street, starting the work at his studio and then moving into adjacent vacant lots.
When the artist saw that the property’s owners had not come around and objected, he continued creating the mural.
In 2002, however, the owners gave Zagar the choice of either buying the property or having the mural removed.
Smith said the artist got the word out through the community and the media.
With money from donations and a mortgage on his home, Zagar was able to acquire the properties and save the mural, Smith said.
In 2004, a non-profit organization was created to oversee the Magic Gardens. The public was allowed to visit what is now a combination museum, art gallery, concert venue and event site four years later.
Zagar makes no effort to hide the influence of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi on his work, putting the name of the master from Catalonia on the mural.
Smith said Gaudi was a great influence on Zagar, who admired the architects use of tiles in his works in Barcelona.
She noted the terracota pieces, the majority of them from Mexico, in the garden, which welcomed 155,000 visitors in 2018.
Zagar, whom Smith describes as a brilliant and complicated man who sometimes has difficulty expressing himself, has called his work a “mirror of the mind.”