Isaiah Zagar is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found on more than 200 public walls throughout the city of Philadelphia and around the world. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, Zagar received his B.F.A. in Painting & Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. When he was 19 years old, Zagar discovered the folk art installations of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York. Influenced by Schmidt, Picasso, Jean Debuffet, Kurt Schwitters, Antonio Gaudi, Simon Rodia and Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, he was inspired to include the concepts of untrained artists as manifestations of fine art.
Zagar’s artwork is heavily influenced by his travels and the personal connections he has made with international folk and visionary artists. Isaiah and his wife Julia completed three years of Peace Corps service in Peru in the mid-1960s, working with folk artists in the Puno region near Lake Titicaca. Soon after, they settled in Philadelphia and began their lifelong work of creating public art and fostering creativity in all its varied forms.
In addition to his three-year Peace Corps service in Peru, Isaiah has completed artist residencies in Tianjin, China, and Rajasthan, India. He also participated in a residency at the Kohler Co. Pottery Foundry in Wisconsin.
Zagar’s work is included in the permanent collections of numerous art institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and has been featured in solo exhibitions throughout the Philadelphia area. Zagar has received grants for his artistic excellence from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Charitable Trusts for his work in Interdisciplinary Arts.
Isaiah Zagar has gained recognition in various films and publications, most notably in the 2008 documentary, In A Dream, created by his son, Jeremiah Zagar. He has spoken at several prominent conferences and artists’ lectures both domestically and internationally. Through 40+ years of creating artwork on a grand, public scale, Zagar has helped shape Philadelphia into a thriving creative community.
“I am 75 years old. I clearly remember the day I first saw Clarence Schmidt’s rambling sculpture environment on a beautiful and breezy June day. I thought to myself, What is this? I had no categories, no frame of reference for it. There I stood, a third-year art student and I didn’t know that I was looking at art. That was 1959.
A lot has changed in the art world, and a lot has changed in the real world. We now have a category for Clarence: vernacular artist. In 1970, after not seeing Clarence for five years, I visited Woodstock, New York where he lived and worked. His first words to me were, ‘I hear you are copying me in Philadelphia.’
It is true to a certain extent; I have been copying Clarence my whole career, trying to make a total encyclopedic vision that has no parameters and no end. 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.
It is an impossible place, but you can visit and smile and know that it exists somewhere. Now you know that place is in Philadelphia, and you knew it all along, didn’t you?”