I love to travel, and was lucky growing up to be part of a family who enjoys a change of scenery every so often as well. An experience that still stands in the forefront of my mind is accidentally happening upon one of the most breathtaking displays of public art I have ever seen while in Philadelphia on one of the last trips my immediate family and I would take together in our little quartet before my brother and I were “officially” grown-up with our own jobs, schedules, and lives.
Mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar has his work across buildings all over Philadelphia and throughout the rest of the country as well, but his Magic Garden is something special, a truly immersive art experience that really does feel like you are being transported into a different universe temporarily as if by magic.
Though he started as a painter, he ended up becoming most known for his public mosaic work. He became an integral part of the “South Street Renaissance” in the 1970s, bringing excitement, inspiration, and beauty to the ignored and abandoned areas of his hometown. The interesting thing is, he only discovered this medium because of others’ willingness to invest and believe in the talents and well-being of those who are struggling. It was while being hospitalized for a breakdown related to undiagnosed bipolar disorder that he was introduced to mosaic making, and he credits this art practice with bringing him out of his depression. Zagar has stated that he was determined to use his breakdown as a springboard into positive mental and spiritual growth, and though mental health is a chronic struggle, he has done just that. At 80 years old, he is still here, filled with an enthusiasm for lifelong learning.
Zagar’s mosaics aren’t just glass and tiles. He utilizes a wide range of materials, much of it upcycled “trash”, and integrates painting and poetry into his designs as well. I had my students make their own mini mosaic on 12×12 tiles using a variety of mixed media materials such as glass pieces, broken jewelry, beads, discarded board game pieces, and more. This is a great way for art programs to use up any odd donations or miscellaneous supplies. I work with students with a wide range of abilities in my Express Yourself Artshop program, and we also have time constraints since we typically spend 1-3 weeks on one project before moving on to the next. To make mosaic art work for our needs, we had students paint the background of their tile whatever color they wanted to show through in between their mosaic pieces, and after they had chosen their pieces and laid out their design we used Weldbond adhesive to attach the parts rather than using grout.
It was interesting to see the messages and themes students were drawn to include in their work, and I was happy to hear that many of them found the process inspiring and therapeutic, same as Zagar did.
If you are interested in learning more about this artist, one of Zagar’s sons created a fantastic documentary about his father’s journey. You do not have to be perfect or feel like you have everything figured out to use your gifts and skills to bring light and life to others. Even through his intense struggles, Zagar has had a profoundly positive impact on his community and continues to do so to this day.
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