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Life In Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
One night as we were walking to a party (we have given up our car in favor of travel by foot, cab or Zipcar– our latest experiment in urban living) we noticed a proliferation of mosaics as made our way down South Street. They are in doorways, entry halls, architectural details, fountains, embedded in sidewalks. It’s as if mosaic vandals came through and and left their whimsical marks arbitrarily on any available surface. We began to wonder if maybe one single person could have been responsible for this because all the work had a very distinctive style. Then we thought, “Naw, one person couldn’t possible do all this – its more than a single person could ever possibly do– that’s crazy.”

That’s when we came face to face with the mother of all mosaics.

Its called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens and it was created by one and only one Isaiah Zagar. He started creating what was to become an entire half city block of mosaic wonderland back in 1994. Walking through Zagar’s creation is to be enveloped in a crazy kalidescope of color, texture and form. He has spent 14 years excavating tunnels, making grottos, sculpting multi-layered walls, tiling and then grouting. By the way, I would like to point out that grouting this endeavor is a whole other subject. The amount of grout used is one thing – the idea of making it yourself I find mindnumbing. Don’t know how many of you have ever tried making your own grout– it is back breakingly hard work. To this he has also incorporated found objects, bicycle wheels, shards of pottery, bottles – basically whatever catches his eye or strikes his fancy.

Much of Zagar’s work is also a kind of time capsule of his own life, his marriage and relationship with his wife, Julia, his sons Ezekiel and Jeremiah, as well as cultural and societal influences such as Day of the Dead and 9/11.

Actually, Zagar’s mosaics go back to the late 1960’s when he and Julia moved into South Philadelphia and began purchasing and renovating derelict buildings and adding colorful mosaics to their walls. As a result the couple were quite a presence in helping to revitalize the area.

We’ve since come across a documentary “In a Dream” by his son Jeremiah Zagar who has become a talented filmmaker in his own right. It’s an incredibly honest portrait of his father and is itself a cinematic mosaic of time, memory, and relationships.

Well, that’s our latest discovery and we are already on the hunt for the next one. Once it gets cleared of nearly two feet of snow…

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