September 24, 2023

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens: Outsider art inside and out by Isaiah Zagar

Isaiah Zagar (image by TexasDex)
Isaiah Zagar (image by TexasDex)

The Magic Gardens in Philadelphia are a visually-crazy art-installation by the artist Isaiah Zagar, who uses the language of outsider art in his work. The gardens cover three city lots on South Street and include the inside of a house and a maze-like construction that spirals deep into the ground. Zagar is a muralist with bricoleur tendencies and the gardens are made of up all sorts of items from more traditional pottery and ceramic to bottles, mirrors and old bicycle wheels.

Begun in 1994 the Gardens were not completed until 2008. Within them Zagar pays homage to his influences such as Kurt Schwitters and Jean Debuffet. He also incorporates references to experiences he has has in his life, both personal and public. His work owes a debt to that of Antoni Gaudi, particularly Barcelona’s Parc Guell. Gaudi brought large-scale mosaic back into the language of the arts, and Zagar’s Gardens builds on this, taking it to new heights. The house and garden are a veritable maze of decoration,  3000 square feet of folk art inspiration. Sculptures hacked from wood stand around the house, their rough-hewn sensibility adding to the unique sense of this art installation. It is an all-enveloping environment – Zagar has worked on the walls, the floors, the ceilings to make a gallery that needs no pictures on the walls. The gallery is the artwork.

In 2002 the Gardens were threatened with destruction when the land-owner decided to sell up. The community managed to raise the money to save it and it is now a non-profit with a mission statement, to inspire ‘…creativity and community engagement by educating the public about folk, mosaic, and visionary art.’ It also ‘preserves, interprets, and provides access to Isaiah Zagar’s unique mosaic art environment and his public murals.’ Locals continue to help out, bringing the artist ceramics and materials for his next works and volunteering in running the Gardens. Guides help interpret the works for visitors, bringing an extra level of understanding to the work.

Zagar has created over 100 other murals around the South Philadelphia area and they now cover over 50,000 square feet of the city.  He can also be seen in film, the artist’s son Jeremiah having filmed an award-winning documentary about his father, the trailer for which can be seen here.

The Magic Gardens are an anti-classical art-piece that may appeal to those who would not normally add art galleries to their lists of must-see things when travelling. They make a fun and unusual visit to something that is unique to Philadelphia.

More information about the Magic Gardens is available at their website.

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