Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is known for its massive glittering mosaics and labyrinthine outdoor sculpture garden. But the space is also filled with layers of meaning and connections that go beyond its walls. Learn more about some of those topics here.
Folk art is handmade work that reflects the stories, people, cultures and traditions of a particular region. The artistic skills are passed down through generations, often within families. Folk art can include pottery, wood carving, weaving, and more. Many types of folk art were first created to be functional but later were made only for aesthetic value.
Isaiah Zagar, the creator of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, and his wife Julia first connected with folk artists in the 1960s when they worked in Peru as Peace Corps volunteers. Their love for folk art grew as they purchased works from around the world for the Eye’s Gallery, Julia’s store at 4th and South Streets. Folk art objects became an integral element of Zagar’s installations, as he included broken objects and commissioned special works based on his drawings. The majority of the work is Mexican, and the Zagars and the non-profit PMG still travel there to purchase work from artists. Learn more about the folk artists represented at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Art environments are permanent large scale artworks that encompass an entire space and surround the viewer. Their creators often have no formal art training and use unusual materials to elaborately embellish their environments. Their work represents their extreme individualism and is influenced by personal experiences or mythologies. The artists’ devotion to their creations is often all-consuming and spans years or decades.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is an art environment created over more than 30 years by Isaiah Zagar. The space also serves as a tribute to other art environments and their creators. Since visiting his first art environment at 19, Zagar began to study them, visit them, and meet the artists who created them. Their names are included on tiles throughout the space and their influence can be seen in many of the objects and techniques Zagar used to create PMG. Read more about the art environments referenced at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Mental Health and Art as Therapy
PMG creator Isaiah Zagar started mosaicking as a form of therapy after a mental breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt when he was 29. The power of art has been transformative for Zagar and his mental health throughout his life. His ability to work is tied very directly to his mental health and is part of the reason why he has continually worked for so many years. When he is making art he is generally doing well, and periods of less artmaking usually coincide with periods of depression for Zagar.
PMG aims to inspire others by providing access to this space, which is a monument to the power of art and self-expression. While Isaiah did go to art school, he taught himself how to mosaic over many decades of trial and error. PMG serves as a journal of his life, documenting his relationships, ideas, and experiences. His process has been inspiring for both those who consider themselves creatives to those who claim to have never made a piece of art in their lives. Many PMG programs present opportunities for visitors to make art in the hopes of contributing positively to their own wellness.
South Street and the Community
As a haven for Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution and Southern Blacks escaping slavery, South Street became fertile ground for emergent forms of cultural, political, and religious expression. It was the center of jazz, comedy, anarchy, and fashion for 19th century Philadelphians. It was also the home of activists who fought segregation on public trolleys – back in 1865! – and the main artery that ran through W.E.B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro, the first sociological study of an African American community.
In 1955, Philadelphia slated South Street and its neighborhoods for demolition to make room for an expressway. Racist urban planning practices like this were common across the country and shaped many U.S. cities. As a consequence, South Street became known to many as Philadelphia’s Mason-Dixon Line, separating the mostly white residents in Center City from the mostly Black residents to the south.
As community members since 1968, Isaiah Zagar and his wife Julia have seen South Street change. They played a meaningful role in the fight against the expressway. When they were young newcomers to the street they offered support to longtime neighborhood organizers and brought a fresh perspective on what South Street might become. As elders, they have become its creative anchors.
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and Zagar’s public murals serve as a record of South Street history, as countless people and events are immortalized in the artwork. These same events helped to make his work possible. One might wonder if his work could have found the space it needed to flourish in any other city, in any other neighborhood, at any other time. The history of South Street and the epic proportions of Zagar’s work are inextricably linked.