Sixty years ago, when Julia Zagar was a teenager, she wanted to be an artist.
“I never wanted to compete in the commercial art field. It was not for me. But I was deeply involved in expressing deep emotional feeling,” said Zagar. “My father was an artist. I went to art school. It gave me meditation, tranquility, and love. But then life changed.”
She met and married artist Isaiah Zagar, and the two traveled to Peru with the Peace Corps. When they returned, she started a business — Eye’s Gallery on South Street — and began raising their two sons.
Julia Zagar stands amid the art she has collected for Eye’s Gallery on South Street, a business she started with pieces she collected while serving with the Peace Corps in Peru with her husband, Isaiah. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
As for her husband, portrayed in his son’s 2009 documentary “In a Dream,” his infidelities and mental breakdowns have taken a toll. A few years into their marriage he attempted suicide and was institutionalized.
“My mother was a suffragette — she believed women had to take care of herself,” said Julia, sitting in the second floor of her gallery crowded with art from Latin America. “But I married an artist who didn’t know how to take care of himself.”
Zagar produced artwork once, and she may do so again.
Invigorating artistic impulse
“Dear Julia,” an exhibition at the nearby Magic Gardens, displays her early ink landscapes, and work by other artists she has inspired. Chief among them is her husband.
If Zagar’s time in Peru produced excellently executed ink paintings, it also pushed her away from making art. She and Isaiah met and worked with folk artists, whose work they collected en masse, filling seven shipping crates bound for Philadelphia.
“I saw artifacts that I loved as much as my own work. I saw people working as well and deeply as I was, and producing things that were better than what I could do,” said Zagar. “They needed it more than me.”
That shipment became the start of Eye’s Gallery; 49 years later, it’s still a South Street institution. Zagar was central to the movement to block the construction of a highway cutting through South Philadelphia (which became I-676, instead cutting through Chinatown) and to galvanize neighbors and small businesses to revitalize the South Street commercial corridor.
She kept up relationships with Latin American artisans and forged friendships with new ones through regular trips to Central and South America. In “Dear Julia” there are portraits of Julia by her husband and recreations of those portraits by artists Zagar has supported through her store.
“In our travels and working with craftspeople, we have seen sometimes they get stuck,” said Zagar. “Artists — all artists from around the world — get stuck. They may have the facilities and the dream, but the don’t know the next step.”
To help them break through artistic blocks, Isaiah would offer them his own drawings for stimulation. Artisans would recreate them in weavings, ceramics, woodcarvings, and paint. Often, those initial drawings were of Julia.
“Laughing Julia” by Isaiah Zagar, 1964. (Magic Gardens)
The drawings would become part of the artistic ecosystem of those regions, as Isaiah’s works on paper were handed from artist to artist as something different from a different part of the world. Julia said images Isaiah made 30 years ago are still in circulation in some rural parts of Peru.
“They don’t go to school for art, they have their heritage,” said Zagar. “But heritage only goes to a certain point. Then they need new stimulation. We all do.”
A new beginning for an old ambition
Zagar’s old ink paintings and those portraits made by her husband resurfaced as they are preparing to move into a new studio space on Watkins Street in South Philadelphia. The director of Magic Gardens, the art environment Isaiah made in the 1990s and has since become its own nonprofit, offered to turn the work into a show spotlighting Julia, who is a board member.
“On the Fields” by Julia Zagar, 1965. (Magic Gardens)
“I was not comfortable with it,” said Zagar, who — unlike her husband — eschews the limelight. “As a result of my discomfort, they did everything. They did the framing, the placing and mockup of the gallery. They painted the walls. It looks really good. It’s a beautiful show.”
She agreed to the show on the condition that proceeds from any sales be used to fund a new Julia Zagar Residency Program for Women Artists, which will invite artists working in ethnographic traditions to live, work, and teach in Philadelphia.
All the effort paid to Zagar as artist, as muse, and as champion of creativity in others may have reignited her old flame.
“I did stimulate me. Isaiah is making me a studio. Hopefully, I will get in there and do some more work,” said Zagar. “Every artist needs time to think and produce. That’s been hard for me.”
“At my age, I should be able to get time to sit and work. I can certainly sit.”