Magic in Philadelphia

Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden in Philadelphia is one more fantastic example of the power of art to turn around a neighborhood’s fortune.

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Back in the late 1960’s, Philadelphia’s South Street was a derelict area, lined with vacant properties. This is when Julia and Isaiah Zagar moved into the neighborhood to live and to start a small business selling Latin American folk arts. Inspired by the work of Spanish architect Gaudi and outsider artist Clarence Schmidt and the famous French art brut builder, Ferdinand Cheval, Isaiah began his mosaic work decorating the storefront for Julia’s store, the Eyes Gallery. (Eyes Gallery is still thriving today. It has expanded its offerings to global folk arts, carefully selected by Julia Zagar–well worth a visit!)

Teaming up with other artist activists, the  Zagars helped transform South Street into an artists’ enclave  Together they successfully protested the construction of a proposed highway that would have ripped through the neighborhood. Continuing on with his mosaic work, Isaiah began his ambitious transformation of two vacant lots at 1020 South Street.

Here’s what you first see when you encounter 1020 South street from the sidewalk:

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Look up:

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Keep looking up and turn your head:

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Turn your head again:

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Now walk in:

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and drink it in for a couple of hours, winding your way through the arches, tunnels,and pathways of the Magic Garden.

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The story goes that after nearly a decade of obsessive work  at 1020 South Street

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the Boston-based property owner caught wind of what was  transpiring on the property he had assumed was vacant. He tried to force Zagar to buy the property on which he was squatting and threatened to demolish the whole thing if Zagar refused. After a two year legal battle the friends who banded together to save Zagar’s masterpiece won their fight by purchasing the property and founding the non profit, the Philadelphia Magic Garden. And so began the  “Renaissance of South Street“, now one of the hippest, most vibrant and fun neighborhoods of Philadelphia.

Time for a little more touring–there’s so much to see at the magic garden.

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Here and there is evidence of Julia and Isaiah’s time spent in Latin America:

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And everywhere you can see Isaiah’s distinctive, fluid, linear style as he draws and re-draws the human figure:

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Time for a bathroom break? Well, take your time:

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I no longer know which way is up…

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And don’t be too sad if you’re up against closing time at Magic Garden (open every day except Tuesdays), because there’s 20 more humongous Isaiah Zagar murals scattered throughout Philadelphia, starting with several other buildings just down the street:

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You’ll just keep stumbling upon Isaiah’s work as you walk about town:

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Thank you Isaiah Zagar and THANK YOU ARTISTS EVERYWHERE for making the world a visual feast.

 

PS If you wish YOU could mosaic like Isaiah, you can! He offers weekend workshops monthly, spring through fall, in which you’ll participate in the creation of new murals about town. Check his website for info.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historic, Haunting Eastern State Penitentiary

For those of you who pining for a very unusual and moving site visit closer to home (OK, I’m making an assumption a lot of my readers are from Boston) you could visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia while I am visiting medieval crypts in Germany. This 1800’s prison, is now a Beautiful Ruins and has been open to the public since 1994.  It is for this institution that the term “penitentiary” (meaning prison) was coined. The revolutionary wagon wheel structurephiladelphia 085 of the architecture was designed to house inmates in solitary cells (a Quaker based idea, considered a forward thinking, humane notion at the time!). The theory was that alone with their own thoughts, inmates would  meditate on their misdeeds and become penitent. On the bright side each inmate was encouraged to spend time outdoors for recreation and gardening. Corporal punishment was banned and, amazingly, Eastern State Penitentiary had central heating, running water and flush toilets in the cells before the White House did!

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Besides the incredibly evocative ruins that one can walk through

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this historic site runs a very interesting, dare I say, QUIRKY, artist opportunity. Artists can apply to do an art installation occupying one of cells. There are about four installations up at a time. Here’s a couple:

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In the above installation the entire interior surface of the cell, walls and furniture are covered with knitted fabric)

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This was an absolutely riveting installation: a video projection of a trans inmate describing her heartbreaking experience in prison.

(Sorry, I did not note the names of these artists so cannot give them credit here. I anyone knows, please tell me and I’ll add that in)

I keep mulling over proposal ideas in my head. Perhaps one of you will be tempted to submit a proposal. Let me know if you do. Next deadline for submission of proposals: June 17, 2015.

OK, next blog post (assuming I can figure out how to do by phone) will be from Germany–the much anticipated Ossuary trip.