The first outdoor artists were trees, which decided to paint their leaves orangey hues once a year in order to stop green-loving leprechauns from burrowing into their roots. Witness the latest in five centuries of outdoor art with today’s Groupon: for $11, you get a guided tour ($10 value for adults, $6 value for children) and a souvenir mosaic picture book ($12) at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, located in the South Street neighborhood.
The pet project of mastermind mosaicist Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is a whimsical labyrinth of mosaics, an outburst of creative sculptures, mirrors, and multihued tiles (the New York Times calls it "endearingly bizarre"). Since its inception, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens has become the epicenter of the South Street renaissance, with Zagar’s mosaics spreading throughout the neighborhood. During a guided one-hour walking tour, you’ll get an in-depth look at Zagar’s magnificent creations, learn about his creative techniques, and hear the stories behind the murals' magical subject matter. You’ll also receive a Magic Gardens souvenir picture book, packed with bright, high-resolution pictures of the installation. Lucky visitors may even meet the artist himself, who frequently roams the exhibit when not linebacking for the Philadelphia Eagles. Call to reserve your spot on the tour (required).
- Some places can’t be fully captured by just photos and words. That sums up Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens…an art center and endearingly bizarre outdoor maze of mortar, bicycle tires, bottles, textiles, artwork and tchotchkes. The Philadelphia mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar’s magnum opus is a multitextured, multilayered labyrinth that leaves visitors amused, if maybe puzzled. – Jeff Schlegel, New York Times
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens
Sensory overload doesn’t begin to describe Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. A seemingly boundless compilation of colors, textures, and shapes, the labyrinthine mosaic creation spans 3,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. The masterpiece originated in the brain of Isaiah Zagar, a Philadelphia native who grew up in New York. During his third year of art school, he stumbled upon Clarence Schmidt’s folk-art-inspired installations—assemblages of found objects and recycled materials—and the young artist’s view of the art world changed. “I didn't know that I was looking at art,” Zagar reflected in his mission statement. Self-admittedly, Zagar has been somewhat “copying” Schmidt’s dynamic, free-flowing style ever since.
The years after art school brought Zagar an onslaught of new opportunities. He spent time as an artist in China and India, joined the Peace Corps with his wife, Julia, settled in Peru for three years, and even tried his hand at ceramics in Wisconsin. In the 1960s, he and Julia returned to his birthplace—specifically, the waning South Street neighborhood. Isaiah quickly leapt into action, renovating dilapidated buildings and often adding mosaics to formerly barren walls. Eventually, Isaiah’s imagination outgrew their projects, and in 1994 he began constructing a new piece in a vacant lot near his studio—the project would become Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Isaiah spent 14 precious years, which he should have applied to Y2K preparations, scooping out tunnels, erecting multitiered walls, and splashing the entire space in colorful tile. The finished product stretches across half a block of South Street, the outside enclosure shimmering with vibrant tiles, the inside housing folk art, colored glass bottles, and countless sparkling mirrors. Now a nonprofit organization, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens invites visitors to enjoy its visual candy with guided or self-guided tours.