Back when I was wearing suits to work, my friend and I signed up for an art class after work. We were going to try mosaics. Sound fun right? Fast forward as I’m at the first class, in said suit with jewelry and new manicure, and told that I need to go buy ten pounds of clay as we will be learning how to make tile from clay to use in class. This was not mentioned in the brochure as I removed all of my jewelry, found an apron to wear and took a big clump of wet clay out of the bag to roll out and be artistic with. We still laugh about this class many years later as my friend still has our toolbox of glass, tools and creative things in her garage. My memories are of cursing as I rolled out the clay, tried to “think” artistically cutting the clay, shaping it, painting it and leaving it to be fired until next class. I wanted to find my artistic side which I thought was hidden deep (very deep) down under all of the finance and accounting skills. A second career in mosaics was not in my future as evidenced by my sad tiled flower pots and soap holders. I knew my limitations back then so when I finally visited The Magic Gardens on South Street in Philly, I was in awe of the sheer scope, dedication and artistry of the tile and mosaic murals.
The Magic Gardens – South Street Neighborhood
Walking along South Street, you might pause to try to figure out what the junk is all about – the bottles in the wall, the bicycle rims on the roof and the multi-tiled courtyard you spy behind the gates. Chances are you will continue walking, that’s a shame because one artist’s passion of work lies behind the walls and underground. If you are lucky, you will find his thirty murals in the alleys and streets nearby but you need to be looking for them and have an idea of what you are looking at.
The Magic Gardens – First Impression
The artist responsible for the indoor gallery and outdoor mosaic environment, is Isaiah Zagar. His work is included in many museum collections and he is the subject of the 2008 documentary “In a Dream” made by his son. It’s hard to tell you where to look first as you enter and buy your adult admission ticket for $7 (what a bargain!). Your senses are on overload and you try to take it all in – the colors, the subjects, the vision and you are just in one room!
The Magic Gardens Visit
I’m not sure if the art is really ever finished but the Magic Gardens which consists of a house (gallery), courtyard and adjacent lot (below street level) was a project that spanned fourteen years as the artist continued to tell his story through the tiles in such a creative way. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it all – was it recycled junk? Was it art? My mind kept waffling back and forth because it was all so new and I didn’t quite understand at the time as I was overwhelmed by it all.
Looking at the tiles in the gallery, it wasn’t until I looked at my photos to see the space in a new light. It’s fascinating to see how your eye returns one image and how you see it anew in a photo. I kept commenting how “amazing” this was because I had first-hand knowledge of the hard work that goes into the art from clay to tile to grout to keep it in place. Every surface is covered – floor to ceiling to bathroom! To me, this was a madness brought to fruition (this is why I’m not an artist).
The Magic Gardens (Outside)
After walking through the indoor home (gallery space), my friend and I walked outside past the open space that is used for events like music and weddings. There is a path to the left, one in the middle and stairs to the right. We started on the left and were mesmerized by the colors, the shapes, the words, the works left unsaid and the many other facets of life grouted into the garden.
Walking down the tiled stairs, there was a section that spoke of the artists wedding proposal which was fun to decipher and further down the stairs you were underground in what would have been the basement of a home that was never built on this lot. Looking up at the blue skies, I really was in a mosaic dream, swallowed up by tile, by artistic license, by one man’s vision. Love it or hate it you will at least appreciate the effort and perseverance.
The Magic Gardens – Final Thoughts
That one man could have the vision and skill to create the Magic Gardens is just one of Philadelphia’s many hidden stories that you need to seek out on your visit to the city. Take time to explore the Magic Gardens and surrounding art in the side streets and alleys in the neighborhood (they will give you a map to discover the other art). You may not “get it” at the time, but when you look back on your visit, I think you will say you were touched by a bit of magic too!
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is located at 1020 South Street and open every day. The admission fee allows for a self guided tour. There are many programs and events open to the public, including mosaic classes, consult their website for more information at www.phillymagicgardens.org