Walking through Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

By Will Becker, Global Philadelphia Ambassador,

Walking through Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens for the first time, it is hard to initially digest or even pinpoint an internal understanding about the work – there is simply so much going on. Walking along South Street, the building could be mistaken for any other lot in Philadelphia. Yet when looking out from 10th Street towards the property on a sunny day, the building and the gardens behind it unmistakably come into view from their shimmering, reflective glow. However, this is not to say that one should take the gardens at face value, or even possibly as a single work of art for that matter. You have to enter it and walk the grounds to fully internalize all that there is to offer.

Respectfully, the gardens are not traditional gardens as such – there are little (if any) plants. Rather, the gardens are the product of years of artist Isaiah Zagar’s sculpting and arrangement of found objects and folk art into a sprawling, all encompassing mosaic. It is reminiscent of Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona, or perhaps more applicably the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. However, I would argue there is a level of intricacy and attention to detail that makes the Magic Gardens differ from the two. It seems that every piece or square foot of the mosaic has a different feeling or aesthetic to it.

Some materials many would consider ‘trash’ in a more dissociated environment: broken dinner plates, bottles, used bike tires, and the distinctly characteristic pieces of broken mirrors that give the area its glimmer. Others have a different value when taken on their own: painted tiles with portraits, animals, and other depictions in a manner almost comparable to early primitivism; broken Portuguese-like ceramics; and statues and cultural artifacts that seem Creole or Central and South American in origin or influence. Words and references to artists that inspire Zagar can be found along the walls of the winding and (in some instances) almost catacomb-like pathways – in sentences or by themselves that change in their intelligibility, yet connect in their poetic nature. All of which entwine in fluidity and serve a purpose in a grander design, on their own, or both.

In some ways, the gardens serve as an amazing example of naïve art: without a clear distinction of one particular cultural context or tradition, which in the process creates one of its own. In the end, as could be said with most naïve art, the gardens’ cultural and meaningful context can only be traced to that of the artist’s. Zagar is American, served several years in the Peace Crops in Peru, and has completed artist residencies around the world. Like the city and country in which it resides, the gardens serve as a cultural melting pot of Zagar’s experience. When walking in, the Magic Gardens might feel like you’re leaving Philadelphia and entering a completely different space and setting. At the same time, though, it could be said that all of the components of this setting are referential and familiar in a way – not enough to be wholly Philadelphian, yet not enough to be wholly foreign. The art and its incredible detail encompass every possible surface of the building and its grounds, even in the exits and routes to the restrooms. The pathways twist and turn like a maze, yet there is not one discernible path to take that leads as a beginning to an end. Perhaps all of this can be interpreted as a metaphor for something grander, or the idea that life can be more complicated than pinpointing it to one answer.