Do you know someone who seemed to know from childhood what they wanted to do with their life? I think Isaiah Zagar is one of those people. Now in his mid-70s, Isaiah is still making art, mostly mosaics. He and his wife live in Philadelphia, and the area around their home has become a public art installation called the Magic Gardens.

Zagar was born in Brooklyn and attended the Pratt Institute in New York, majoring in drawing and painting. While there, he was greatly influenced by the work of Clarence Schmidt, a folk artist who built giant, multistoried assemblages where he lived near Woodstock, New York. Zagar has also acknowledged the influences of Gaudi, Picasso, and Rodia.

Zagar and his wife Julia traveled the world enjoying local folk art, including a three-year stint in the Peace Corps in Peru. They settled in Philadelphia in the South Street neighborhood in the late 1960s, where the couple slowly began buying up derelict buildings and renovating them, beginning with a building where Julia opened a folk art shop called The Eyes Gallery, which is still in business. Inside, Isaiah mosaicked the walls as a way to showcase the folk art that they displayed. He covered the walls of their home with mosaics, and in an empty lot nearby, he began building other mosaic artworks.

When the lot's owner wanted to sell the property in 2002, the community raised the money to buy it from donations, loans, and grants and incorporated the property as a nonprofit to preserve the artworks.  Over the course of several decades, Zagar built fantastical walls, grottoes, arches, and tunnels and covered them with mosaics. The 3,000-square-foot area is now a public art institution which visitors may enjoy throughout the year. His work has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Charitable Trust, and his artworks are part of the permanent collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Washington's Hirschhorn Museum, and others.

Zagar has mosaicked walls, floors, and ceilings, often using found objects such as bicycle wheels, cast-off toys, bottles, and lots of mirrors, in addition to colorful tile pieces. Sometimes the works depict his family or major events such as a tribute to the victims of 9/11, and other times the work is simply a playful, and always colorful, abstract. He often uses intensely colored grout that contrasts with the tiles in the mosaic — for example, bright red grout in a tile design in blues. This adds vibrancy and movement to the artwork.

More than 130 walls in the area are covered in mosaic, many of them commissions by local businesses and individuals. Every month Zagar leads a workshop to teach mosaic technique through hands-on experience. Other events such as concerts are also held in the Gardens, as well as outreach programs for local schoolchildren.

Aerial view of Isaiah Zagar's Magic Gardens
Credit: Gabe Kirchheimer