I had walked by the front gates of Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on 10th and South St. dozens of times but never ventured inside — until this weekend — where for a mere $3 donation I was transported inside a work of art. The gardens consist of a main building with two levels and an outdoor labyrinth of mosaicked tiles, shards of glass, empty bottles, bicycle wheels, fragments of poetry, and four armed statues.
Walking around the gardens is as if walking in a dream. Even though most of the materials for the garden were found while dumpster diving, they somehow have gained a sense of magic. Empty wine bottles glow emerald, and miniature rainbows leap from the mirrored shards and onto the pavement. Tin angels reside next to devil masks, encased in cement archways. Bits of poetry punctuate the structure and give this mixed-media jungle a voice.
The gardens are an ongoing project started in 1994 by Isaiah Zagar, who's life's mission has been to gentrify, beautify, and re-dream the city of Philadelphia. Zagar's art is ever present throughout the city, with a main focus that weaves in and around the South Street corridor. There are currently over 100 murals on public city walls, and new murals popping up consistently. Most welcome the glass and pottery creations that reflect the neighborhood (and the history of a local art revolution). Others call it garbage. In 2005 the gardens were saved from a guerrilla demolition attack thanks to a non-profit law firm specializing in protecting the arts, as well as support from locals in the form of donations.
Despite the controversy, Zagar continues to hold two day weekend workshops once a month where he teaches the art of mosaicking to eager students. The workshops cost $250 each and include materials and a chance to immortalize yourself while beautifying the city — all while building a mural with a local legend.