In what used to be Julia Zagar’s kitchen, bright Latin-American folk art pieces are displayed alongside pink and blue mosaic walls created by her husband, Isaiah.
The Zagars are best known for South Street’s large mosaic installation, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, and arts philanthropy throughout the Philadelphia region. Isaiah Zagar’s eye-catching mosaic work can be found on walls across the area, like Germantown Academy in Fort Washington.
The Zagars are also the owners of Eyes Gallery on South Street, founded in 1968 and filled to the brim with Latin-inspired folk art. The shop was purchased for $10,000 and originally occupied only the first floor. The couple lived upstairs, but as their collection grew, the store expanded as well.
“We were the first of the new shops to open on South Street,” Julia Zagar said. “There became more and more and we called it the South Street Renaissance.”
The Zagars joined the Peace Corps after finishing art school in New York. Julia Zagar said her husband didn’t want to go into the draft, so they chose to join the Peace Corps and were stationed in the southern mountains of Peru.
The pair trained in Peru for three years under Peace Corps advisors in craft development and worked with craftspeople to bring items back to the American market, Julia Zagar said.
“We started filling trunks of all the things we had made and the Peace Corps sent them back for us,” Julia Zagar said.
Julia Zagar first became interested in Latin jewelry when she was looking for a wedding ring in Peru.
“I saw what they did in making earrings, cuffs, hammering silver and we learned the different techniques,” she said.
She began buying pieces in Peru, starting the jewelry collection that would eventually add to her gallery and shop.
When the couple returned to the United States, they began attending handcraft jewelry shows in New York and met people from all over the world. Today, all of the jewelry is made out of silver, gold, copper, bronze or wood.
Julia Zagar said the idea of opening a store was born when she and her husband were thinking of ways to put their work on display. But in the early sixties, South Street was deserted, she said. There were plans in the works of putting an expressway through the street.
“There were a lot of people who wanted to do something and were interested, so we formed a group,” she said. “South Street Renaissance became a reality.”
Some of the shop’s early collections came from their Peace Corps station in Puno.
“It is southern Peru with Aymara Indians and there great knitters and all the alpaca wool comes from there,” Julia Zagar said. “It is a very fruitful area even though it is very poor.”
From speaking Spanish while in the Peace Corps, she said that she and her husband received a more intense grounding in the culture of Latin America. They fell in love with the color associated with the region and reflected it in their shop.
“We are color, design, fruitfulness, and that is what you see in Latin America,” Julia Zagar said.
She added that the gallery and store has a collection of Philadelphia art ranging from pre-Columbia to modern times. One contributing artist is 2003 Tyler alumna Danielle Puccini, who graduated as an art history major.
“If it feels like it will fit in with the folk art that is great, but we also try to get out of the box a little bit and try other designers, local designers, anyone who is fair trade,” said former student Carole Shields, the store manager and domestic buyer for the gallery.
“There are very few Latin folk art stores left,” Shields said. “I hope we are here for another 50 years.”
“We love what we do and it has opened many other vistas for us,””she said. “We stay even with the ups and downs. We have a clientele that supports us, knows that we are different … they want the unusual.”
Emily Scott can be reached at email@example.com.
Video shot Eli Laban and Linh Ha Khanh Than and edited by Sean Brown and Eli Laban.