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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.

The Painted Bride Art Center Building – Image Source: Inquirer

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 in his studio – Image Source: Philadelphia Neighborhoods

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. 

The Zagars in Peru – Image Source: Philly Magic Gardens

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.

Image Source: Pinterest

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.

Isiah Zagar at his South Street Gallery – Image Source: Philadelphia Neighborhoods

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”.

Image Source: Pinterest

“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. 

Image Source: Pinterest

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.

Image Source: Pinterest

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

Image Source: Pinterest

2. The “Big Dude”

Image Source: Pinterest

3. The Painted Bride Art Center

Image Source: Pinterest

4. Action Builders, 1420 S. 7th Street

Image Source: Pinterest

5. “The Men Can Pledge” – 1932 W Berks St

Image Source: Pinterest

6. South Schell Street – 601 S Schell St

Image Source: Pinterest

7. Ben Dorfman Building – 324 Kater Street

Image Source: Pinterest

8. Alder Street

Image Source: Pinterest

9. Molly’s Bookstore – South Ninth Street

Image Source: Pinterest

10. South Street

Image Source: Pinterest

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!

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