Posted on April 16, 2015 by Victoria Meyer
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Isaiah Zagar –first through his mosaics, and later face-to-face. Our first introduction was on a sunny day in February. For the first time in weeks, the sun peeked through the grey sky and batted a lash towards spring. Having survived my first winter in Philadelphia since living in sunny Naples, Florida for five years, I felt inspired to explore South Street, an energetic part of the city I only pass through to go downtown at night.
I heard a lot of buzz about a place called Philadelphia Magic Gardens (PMG), on 11th and South Street, so I decided to make it my first stop. When I pulled up to the winding, vibrant mosaic that rests on a typical city street, between average city buildings, I immediately knew I’d be spending hours exploring the mosaic, making it my only stop before returning to the real world and going to class.
Zagar’s mosaic is an alternate reality. Immersed in a chaotic structure of broken tiles, bicycle wheels, paint, bottles, and mirrors, I feel unusually calm. Stress slips away and I embrace the curiosity and awe of his world. Through his art, he shares with me parts of his life, and I reflect on mine. In his mosaic anything is possible. And standing there, I can’t help but feel like the same is true for me.
The second time I met Isaiah, he was mosaicking a bathroom that had been redone in the indoor portion of PMG. I was hoping to meet him in person after my professor shared with me that he is a personal friend. I poke my head around the wall, and carefully enter the roped off space in which he is working. With one foot through the door I introduce myself as my professors student and ask if I may speak to him and photograph him working.
He accepts with energy and warmth, without ceasing to pack the green grout between tiles. Feverishly working he encourages me to keep pushing boundaries to get behind closed doors. Just as I had connected his work to my experience before, he draws a parallel from mine to his. When he and his wife were in the Peace Corps they found the local art fascinating. He tells me they pushed the boundaries of their mandate to work with local artists, encouraging me to continue using mutual friends and other connections to work my way into otherwise off-limits situations. Jokingly he adds the benefit being a pretty, young woman to the list of tools for entry.
Isaiah’s eccentric personality and witty banter is evident in person and in his work. On my way out, I thanked him and wished him well. Through his thick grey beard he called out, “Have a good,” –and where I was expecting to hear “day” he continued– “life!” And until we meet again, that’s the Isaiah I know, full of vibrancy, levity, and surprise.
Photography and Text by Victoria Meyer, Copyright 2015
About the Author: Victoria Meyer is a freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2018.