Isaiah Zagar: the Mosaic Art Dream-maker
Mosaic art is a medium that thrives in public places. In our blogs, we’ve enjoyed seeking out and sharing some of the best examples. On your own travels, you may have seen work by modern master artists such as Jim Fachor, Laurel True, or the mysterious French “Tile Bomber” known as Invader.
In Philadelphia, residents are blessed to live in Isaiah Zagar’s world. The self-described “Very eccentric dude” will turn 81 next month. He’s been steadily transforming his neighborhood since the 1970s.
Five Decades of Public Art
Zagar’s development as an artist was born in Peru. As a Peace Corp volunteer in the latter part of the 1960s, he was fascinated with the area’s folk art, and idea of expressing spirituality.
Afterwards, when he and his wife settled in Philadelphia, mosaic became central to his artistic output. After a serious bout of depression, Zagar found mosaic art designs healing.
“It was like a kind of therapy for him – It’s what brought him out of his depression”-Olivia Edlund, Philadelphia Magic Gardens
Living and running a gallery on South Street, he transformed the space with mosaic. Rather than buying his mosaic art supplies, he created his colorful works with found objects, mixed with glass mosaic and other tiles.
His energy was hard to contain. Zagar continued on out into his neighborhood, transforming derelict buildings, vacant lots, and more. Over 5 decades, he has created hundreds of mosaic wall art pieces throughout the area.
The artist’s mosaic patterns come from a very personal place. Zagar uses the world – and public streets of Philadelphia as his canvas. But he often has spiritual revelations as he works. They are expressed in sweeping patterns, and dense applications of mosaic designs.
Zagar has his own term for the effect his art provokes: “Visual glossolalia”.
“People can get very offended by what I do, too. It’s been called visual pollution. I like that term.” -Isaiah Zagar-Isaiah Zagar
Going One-On-One with Zagar’s Art
Visiting and appreciating Zagar’s work in person is actually quite easy, once you’re in Philadelphia. We suggest visiting the Philadelphia Magic Gardens first.
This combination art installation/museum/art center opened in 2008. Its history began with two vacant lots located near Zagar’s studio. He first mosaicked the buildings on either side of the property, then spent years sculpting multi-layered walls out of found objects. After a couple of decades, the out-of-town owner of the land discovered Zagar’s installation and decided to sell the lots.
The community came together to save the beloved destination, and it became the PMG. Even better – Zagar was able to continue with his living artwork, adding tunnels and grottos.
10 of the Best Isaiah Zagar Mosaic Art Pieces
Once you leave the Philadelphia Magic Gardens, you can explore the area. Check out their map, or just find them on your own, like we did! Here are some other must-see installations:
1. Clifton Street: The Reclining Diva
2. The “Big Dude”
3. The Painted Bride Art Center
4. Action Builders, 1420 S. 7th Street
5. “The Men Can Pledge” – 1932 W Berks St
6. South Schell Street – 601 S Schell St
7. Ben Dorfman Building – 324 Kater Street
8. Alder Street
9. Molly’s Bookstore – South Ninth Street
10. South Street
Learning More about Isaiah Zagar
If you’re interested in getting to know more about Zagar, we highly recommend the “In A Dream” documentary. This beautiful, intimate film was produced by his son, Jeremy.
Completed in 2009, it’s an award-winning piece that offers rare access to Zagar’s world.
We’ve really enjoyed sharing Isaiah Zagar’s work with you. With so many great artists working in mosaic art today, who would you like to see us feature next? Let us know in the comments!