Mosaic master Isaiah Zagar offers small taste of latest art space [photos]

After eight years of working in near-isolation, the creator of the legendary Magic Garden on South Street in Philadelphia unveiled his newest artspace to a lucky few.

Isaiah Zagar has been busy transforming an unheated two-story building supply warehouse on Watkins Street in South Philadelphia – adjacent to the Neumann-Goretti Catholic High School – into a visionary art environment. He began as the labyrinthine, folk-art assemblage in the Magic Garden was wrapping up.

“I needed a new challenge,” said Zagar, standing inside the 10,000-square-foot space. The square footage of mosaic embedded with found objects is much greater, considering that every surface of the floors, walls and ceilings is covered.

insert2The spaces are open, the ceiling is high, and windows allow shafts of light to rake the mirrored mosaics. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“Eat your heart out, Michelangelo. Eat your heart out, Piero della Francesca. Eat your heart out, Leonardo da Vinci,” said Zagar. “You know, I want to eat their hearts because I love them. I’m a primitive man. I want to consume them.”

The new space, still unnamed, is similar to the Magic Garden in that it is mostly broken-tile mosaics describing figures, with some passageways made of cement and found objects.

If the twisting grottoes of the Magic Garden can sometimes feel like a crypt, the Watkins Street building is a cathedral: the spaces are much more open, the ceiling is high, and windows allow shafts of light to rake the mirrored mosaics.

insertThe new space, still unnamed, is similar to the Magic Garden in that it is mostly broken-tile mosaics describing figures, with some passageways made of cement and found objects. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Zagar sees his work as a conversation between art history and his own id.

“Today I was sitting in Starbucks, and a very mysterious thing happened,” he said. “A man walked in and sat down, and he turned into a portrait by Goya.

“Of course, I know why that happened, because I was just in Boston at the Goya show. His work impregnated me. When I walked through Starbucks, I was not thinking of Goya at all, I was thinking of my mocha. But there appeared Goya. I could not get that man to not be Goya.”

About 80 people who bought tickets to a dinner party this week explored the artspace while eating barbacoa, a Mexican-style barbecue by a proprietor of a local food truck. Afterwads the space closed again. Zagar has no immediate plans to make it a public space. 

The work is not finished: some walls are still bare, the first-floor ceiling has not been started, and Zagar would like to create a James Turrell-style light cupola on the roof. His vision for the space came to him as he first considered buying the building eight years ago.

“I can’t describe it in words,” said Zagar. “People ask, ‘What are you saying with your art?’ I can say, ‘Well, peace and love.’ But if it’s only that that I’m saying, and you go away, you know nothing. You haven’t experienced it.”

insert3Isaiah Zagar is reflected in the kaleidoscope  of mirrors on his studio wall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Zagar is now 75 and does most of his work by his own hand, with assistance from students. He started the Magic Garden when he was 50, and it took 14 years. The more refined Watkins Street mosaics took half that time.

“My approach is one of evolution,” said Zagar. “I want to work, until I die, in making art every day. This is an evolutionary process.”

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