These days, I spend most of my time doing 800 different things in my middle-of-the-woods, middle-of-nowhere, rural-NJ home, but before this very different era of my life began, I lived in Philadelphia (along with a few of the Philadelphia suburbs). I spent the majority of my twenties in the city, and loved (almost) every minute of it. In all of the years I spend getting to know Philadelphia, however, I had never visited Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. So, when the time for my second Artist’s Date rolled around, I decided to take a drive to the big city and check it out.
Once I realized where Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens were, I knew exactly where they were. That sounds redundant, but, though I’d never really heard the name before and certainly had never visited the community center/art gallery/most amazing public art space EVER, I had walked by it a countless number of times during my years in Philly. In fact, I can remember glancing at the small part of the display you can see from the opposite street on numerous occasions and thinking, “My God. What IS that??”
Thankfully, there is a fairly inexpensive parking garage on the corner of 10th and South (no risking a run in with the infamous Philadelphia Parking Authority for me, thanks!) making parking for the 1020 South Street space especially convenient. I parked, grabbed some cash and my camera, and braced myself against the cold and wind for the short walk up the street. The outside of the organization is impressive in and of itself. Consisting of nearly half of a city block, the building (about the size of a large South Philly row home) and the gated, outdoor space is entirely covered with an elaborate mosaic mural by artist Isaiah Zagar. You read correctly – the entire building. Bits of mirror, broken glass, handmade tiles, and bottles adorn all sides of the building, weaving and intertwining into one giant and breathtaking piece of art. But the outside of the building is only the beginning.
I pulled open the standard glass door and stepped inside, only to be pleasantly greeted by warm air, a dual receptionist team, and more colors than I would have ever imagined in one place. I explained to the first gallery employee that I had never been to the center before, and she kindly took some time to explain what it was about. Hosting three indoor galleries (one of which is a basement space that is only open on the weekends) as well as an elaborate, outdoor space, the building was originally purchased by Mr. Zagar as his studio workspace and eventually became a 14 year art project itself, and the artist dedicated countless hours turning the 3,000 square foot space into Philadelphia’s most impressive public works of art. The artist still works in the space above the gallery, and part of the exhibit space is dedicated to new and current works that are also for sale. She said that I was free to wander the galleries and the outdoor space at will and that I could feel free to take pictures (which I definitely did!).
The first thought I had for the space was: overwhelming.
Everything is covered in visual stimulus, and unless you take your time and pay attention, you’re sure to miss something amazing. Even the bathroom is a work of art and completely covered in Zagar’s unique and beautiful mosaic art. In the indoor galleries, the floors, walls, and ceilings are covered in mosaic art – bits of mirror, handmade tiles, and elaborate and detailed tile-based images are everywhere you look, punctuated by bottles, dishes, and the occasional original sculpture. The outside space – a massive mosaic sculpture garden – was simply breathtaking. A maze of stairways, tiny, surprising spaces, and large sculptural installations made it one of the most joyful and original spaces I have ever had the pleasure of spending time in. Thousands of mirrors glittered in the afternoon sun, and I was thrilled by the colored bottles, bicycle wheels, and whimsical statues around every corner. The entire space was sculpted by a man with a vision and a passion for making – from the hidden spaces to the stairways and walls – it seems to grow and change around you. I’m sure I could have spend hours and hours finding everything amazing about this space.
This Artist’s Date was an unquestionable success. I spent the rest of the afternoon eating gourmet vegan food (something that is impossible to find in the place that I live now) and browsing some of my favorite local spots, including the Philly AIDS Thrift (where I lucky enough to pick up some second-hand books and vintage lace doilies that I plan to use in an upcoming art project), but the highlight of my day – maybe even the highlight of my week – was the two hours of sheer awe, inspiration, and joy I felt while exploring the most beautiful maze I have ever been in.
Zagar’s murals can be seen throughout the city (a total of 30 different public art pieces can be seen throughout Philadelphia, not including the Magical Gardens), and I am inspired by his drive to complete such a beautiful and complex thing, and equally as encouraged that there are still things of extreme beauty not only being created, but also treasured and valued by the community in which it is found. This space speaks clearly of the community in which it was created, it tells a story, and is so intensely beautiful I can hardly contain myself. I highly recommend you visit this treasure if you ever have the opportunity – and if you’re from the Philadelphia area and have never been to the Philadelphia’s Magic Garden’s, the $5 admittance fee will be well, well worth it.
You can find out more about this amazing space at: http://www.PhillyMagicGardens.org – remember to support local arts organizations and stay tuned for my next Artist’s Date!