The Magical Garden has become an artistic labyrinth of mirrors, pieces of ceramic tiles, discarded bottles, silverware, bicycle wheels and even a ceramic toilet. And, it belongs to 66-year-old Isaiah Zagar, a self-proclaimed “South Street hippy.”
For 37 years, the folk artist has worked relentlessly on the garden to transform it from the neglected, rat-infested patch of land that he found it in, to the beautiful garden of glass and mirror mosaics.
The garden, located at 1022 South St., attracts many visitors, even by the busload.
“Wow! This place is awesome,” said a schoolgirl from New Jersey, who came to visit the tourist spot with her classmates.
She approached Zagar and asked him if he was finished “decorating the garden.” “I’ll stop working on it when I would be too tired and too old to continue working,” Zagar said. “Otherwise, it has no end.”
Zagar was born in Philadelphia in 1939. Shortly after, his parents moved him to Brooklyn, N.Y., where he spent the next 21 years of his life.
Zagar credits his schooling as the primary force behind his decision to become involved in the world of art.
“My inspiration to become an artist had several prongs,” Zagar said, as he leisurely sat back in his chair and sipped his coffee. “The most important prong was schooling. I was just in second grade when I was made the class artist. I got a lot of kudos for my art work.”
The artist did not get kudos in other fields of academia and learning throughout his school life. He said he spent most of his time in class daydreaming and undressing women in his mind, an act that later manifested itself in his adult life when he created numerous paintings and mosaics of naked women.
Zagar describes himself as a poor mathematician, with a passion for reading and obtaining knowledge.
However, he does confess to the inability to comprehend and interpret written instructions.
“I need someone to show me how things are to be done. Those are two very important words for artists,” Zagar said. “Show me.”
The artist received his bachelor’s degree in painting and graphics from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y. Zagar was 19 years old when he received his first inspiration in the artwork of folk artist, Clarence Schmidt.
The budding young artist was in awe of Schmidt’s creation and credits him as being one of the “heroes” who inspired him to include the concepts used by assemblage artists in his own masterpieces.
Other folk and assemblage artists like Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters and Antonio Gaudi are Zagar’s role models. Their names are adorned along the walls of the Magical Garden as a show of respect and also symbolize the life-long imprint that they made on the artist’s life.
Zagar’s intent is to ensure that the “mosaics and sculpture garden remain put as long as Philadelphia exists.”
His intention and the garden were endangered when the Boston-based owner of the plot expressed his decision to sell the property for $300,000 and asked Zagar to demolish his artwork.
The owner said, in the fifth issue of Philadelphia Arts Writers online edition, that Zagar’s art is “garbage” and that he has kept the plot of land “looking like a pigsty.”
In response, the artist and his wife Julia left no stone unturned to prevent such a catastrophe from happening.
Other than the Magical Garden, Zagar has erected 73 murals that decorate the outer walls of structures in Philadelphia, including the exterior of the Painted Bridge Art Center, located at 230 Vine St. The artist also conducts nine workshops a year in Philadelphia, with a few in Virginia and California.
The Magical Garden is open on the weekends for anyone to walk in and explore for no charge, though donations are welcomed to save the display of glass and mirrors.
Zagar, the artist and landowner of the garden, sports a white beard with a purple woolen cap when the weather turns cold. He claims that his art studio has no boundaries and will work wherever he is allowed.
Zagar has personally footed the bill for most of his projects displayed around the city of Philadelphia.
His dream is to be invited to places all over the world to construct his glass mosaics and murals.
An anonymous benefactor has agreed to donate $100,000 on the condition that the remaining $200,000 is raised by the nonprofit organization that was founded to save the Magical Garden.
Amna Rizvi can be reached at email@example.com.