I was pretending, quite poorly, to take pictures of the red bicycle wheel that had wedged itself as a window in the paint-spattered wall. He was not fooled, however, and I think he even posed for me, pretending as well, just as poorly, not to notice. Not even his white thicket of a beard could smother that grin. Isaiah Zagar, the artistic legend of Philadelphia’s South Street, was sitting in his Magic Garden on a Sunday afternoon in August and laughing, as creative souls are keen to do.
He was talking with a little girl, somebody’s granddaughter, giggling in a loud mango skirt, so I waited my turn behind a wall of mosaics. Isaiah Zagar has created a world of them, covering more than 40,000 square feet of Philadelphia with fragments of tile, mirror, and glass. He has developed a knack for salvaging: the glass from abandoned city warehouses, shards of pottery gone wrong, scraps of plaster, blue bottle necks and bicycles, clumped together with handfuls of cement and painted over to become a local legend. He has scraped a living out of trumping the ramshackle with color.
Isaiah and Julia Zagar first came to Philadelphia in the 60s, long-haired and idealistic, after three years of serving with the Peace Corps in Peru. They rented a small apartment on South Street, a district that soon became threatened with the plans of an intruding expressway which would tear down all former establishments. So local artists threw themselves into inspired protest, pioneering new avant-garde theatres, quirky coffee nooks, and folk galleries that soon merited the title of the South Street Renaissance, and would later establish itself as the creative hub of Philadelphia.
Isaiah started handcrafting his own revolution in his basement, every inch of which he soon busied with mosaic and paint. This design spread with time, expanding into the hippie couple’s apartment, blooming its way up the stairs, and finally spilling into the street outside to transform the adjoining alley into a corridor of culture and color.
Isaiah’s art buds out of the cracks like dandelions in cement, sprouting and sprawling through every crevice and hollow to assert its stubborn brightness. With the pluck of Zagar and other local artists, the plan for the expressway was canceled. The Vietnam war was over, South Street had won its skirmish against corporate expansion, and Isaiah was able to keep his labyrinth of mosaics that still invites visitors today under the name “The Magic Garden”.
Snippets of poetry are inlaid in the walls, Isaiah’s own, such as “Precise shades of love and injery” and, “Remember walking around in this work of fiction”. Most of these flaunt the typical misspelling of an artist. They are, in some places, a visual narration of his own life and family retelling raw and honest themes such as depression, childbirth, infidelity, and loss.
Isaiah has no qualms about self-portraits and liberally plasters them on available surfaces; usually portraying himself as matter-of-factly pants-less, and flailing about himself the six arms typically given a Hindu god, each brandishing a paintbrush or sculpting knife. The word whimsical comes to mind. But I want to take my own portrait of this visionary.
The girl in the mango skirt finally skips off, and I decide it’s now or never. The hippie of yesteryear lifts his chin in my direction, and I ask my favor. I am sure he is used to it by now. I have the suspicion he even likes it. So I lift my 35mm and tilt the lens to focus on that face, flickering in amusement and the unmistakable mark of a man with something up his sleeve.