To Do: Migrate

This lecture was part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Magical Mosaics: Preserving Isaiah Zagar’s Philadelphia Art Environment


Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

One of the nation’s most amazing, yet least known, art environments is concentrated in the southern quadrant of one of the largest cities in America. It is the product of an eccentric and brilliant Philadelphia artist who through decades of prolific mosaicking, has turned the city into his own art environment. The colorful and vivacious art environment embodies the character of its creator, Isaiah Zagar. This paper contextualizes the work of Philadelphia mosaic artist, Isaiah Zagar within thegenre of art environments and the development of South Philadelphia, and articulatesan argument for the significance of Zagar’s work. Zagar creates large?scale architectural mosaics that use non?traditional materials, such as South American folk art, cut mirror, found objects, and re?glazed industrial tiles embedded in brightly colored grout. His unusual mosaics can be found on building facades, garages, and walls throughout Philadelphia. The most significant of Zagar’s mosaics is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (“PMG”), which is an elaborate complex of inter?woven spaces with decorated architectural surfaces.PMG is Zagar’s opus, and an art environment unto itself. But, Zagar’s Philadelphia art environment is far greater than PMG alone; it encompasses the city of Philadelphia. Zagar’s more than 125 mosaics throughout the city constitute one exceptional art environment, which has become both a source of pride and an emblem of the city. To date, this exceptional creation has received little attention and no conservation treatment. This paper articulates the wide array of preservation challenges Zagar’s fragile work faces, such as real estate issues and materials deterioration, and offers specific preservation recommendations that address those challenges.


Church:    Sara is a Conservation Technician and a Materials Conservation Collaborative in Philadelphia. She has assisted in the conservation of various landmarks in the greater Philadelphia area including the Rodin Museum, numerous others. She earned a Masters Degree at Columbia School of Architecture and she ‘s here to present her thesis work actually. So I’m going to hand it over to you because you can tell it better than I.

Modiano:    Just a little piece of my thesis, that’s it, just a little smidge so [ ? ]. Hi My name is Sara Modiano and today I will be speaking on Isaiah Zagar’s materials and techniques.

First, I’ll give you a little background into who he is and his work and then I will describe the variety of materials he uses and lastly his construction methodology. I hope this presentation will give you a rough sketch of Isaiah’s contribution to the genre of art environments and will give you a better understanding of how this artist creates his work.

To date, Isaiah has received some attention but no conservation work has been done on anything that he’s created minus the fact that Isaiah, who is still alive luckily, every time something falls off, he’ll put it back on. Understanding how Isaiah’s art work is constructed and what it’s constructed of and recognizing its value as an essential step towards sharing its preservation in the future, so it’s not the at the state [ ? ] yet but hopefully we’ll get there.

Isaiah Zagar is a Philadelphia artist that creates large scale architectural mosaics that use non-traditional materials such as south American folk-art, [ ? ] found objects and ceramic tiles embedded in a unique slightly colored grout. Zagar’s best known for Philadelphia’s Magic Garden and it’s actually the only piece of Zagar’s work that has any preservation at all. It was purchased by a community group, a non-profit [ ? ] for him so that’s the only one that’s saved out of a total of 125 mosaics in the Philadelphia area.

Zagar’s [ ? ] so PMG is really his Opus. It’s at the center of the city wide art environment that he’s create. The physical side itself is comprised of a building at 1020 South Street and the two adjacent lots and it’s embellished inside, outside walls, ceilings, floors. He’s built grottos and stairways and pathways and here’s just a couple images so you can see the various kinds of environment that he’s created.

He started the construction of this in 1994 and is pretty much done. There is not much left that he can do but he’s still working. But even more unusual than PMG’s presence in the fifth largest city in the US is that Zagar’s work is not confined to this one location. As you can see here, Zagar’s mosaics have been spreading out all over buildings, facades, walls and alleyways throughout Philadelphia. As I said, there are more than 125 mosaics currently and he has covered more than fifty thousand square feet of wall space in the area. That’s a lot in a small urban area and today, the [ ? ] mosaics is more common than not on South Street. There are seventy mosaics in the South Street corridor. So Zagar’s art  environment is far greater than PMG alone. It encompasses the City of Philadelphia and in the process, Zagar’s Philadelphia art environment has become both a source of pride and an emblem of the city.

Here’s one of the other sites that are within walking distance really of PMG. They’re everywhere. Some are just one story facades. Some are entire buildings, some are inside, some are outside. Just to give you a little glimpse of who Isaiah is; Isaiah was born in 1939. Unlike most art environment builders, he is a trained artist. He earned a BFA in Paintings and Graphics from the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City in 1960. In 1962 he met and married his wife Julia. They later joined the Peace Corps where they spent several years working together as art advisors to the [ ? ] and Inca people of Peru, where they really started to develop their love of South American art. Upon their return to the U.S. in 1967, they moved to Germantown which is just outside of .[ ? ] downtown and then things took a turn for the worst. Isaiah had a nervous breakdown and he was institutionalized and he even attempted suicide. As a way for him to cope with all of the trauma in his life, he started to mosaic. He enjoyed and Julia moved down to Philadelphia and they bought a home on South Street and opened up the Eyes Gallery, which was a folk-art store.

The nervous breakdown Zagar suffered was an artistic revelation for this aspiring artist. His psychotic break redirected his mode of self expression and led him to develop a unique, recognizable visual language. He has continued to refine that visual language over the last forty-five years. While each mosaic is a one of a kind, there are common threads that run through his body of work. One; the compositions are based on Zagar’s painted line drawings which can either be floating undulating lines, large extracted figures, or large heads, two; the content relates to his life, personal experiences in the local community with a particular focus on his family and three; the mosaics are created with all [ ? ] materials all held together in a patchwork of brightly colored grout. The vast majority of these materials are ephemeral in outdoor applications. So what are the materials? Of all the materials Zagar employs in his mosaics, one thing is clear, the mirrors are key he said. In his early work, Zagar used large sheets of mirror in random patches, unlike the running lines he used in his later work, which you can see on the far side of the screen. Having mastered cutting mirrors, Zagar uses smaller rectangles that are approximately 1 X 3 inches in size.  In addition, Zagar has found that using smaller pieces of mirror helps combat vandalism by neighborhood kids who would smash the larger sheets when they were on exterior surfaces.

Over the years, Zagar has given various explanations for why he uses mirror. He feels it is a magical material. He is drawn to it because it is inherently enchanting he said. The material is always present reflecting everything. It possesses a profound mysterium tremendom which he seeks in everything. Also, Zagar said that he is drawn to the reversal quality of mirror because of his dyslexia. In fact many inscriptions are written in reverse, or sort of reverse, requiring a mirror to decipher them. [ ? ] aside, he uses mirror to remind each passing observer, ‘yes, it’s you. Your dreams matter too.” He wants participants in his work.

Another material that Zagar uses to great effect is glass, particularly glass bottles. Glass, wine, and beer bottles were used to create many bottle walls, sort of like Grandma [ ? ] bottle walls in PMG and they’ve also been used to embellish different architectural elements on the tops of things and in his cement blobs which are large cement blobs that Zagar makes [ ? ] in. In the bottle walls, the bottles are laid in courses and joined with a colored grout. When asked where he gets the bottles from, Zagar [ ? ] that he drank all of them. In truth, Zagar received glass bottles form a variety of sources. Other glass elements of Zagar’s work include refuse glass block, drinking glasses, blown glass art objects, reverse painting on clear glass which he does with acrylic paints and he also creates faux stain glass, which you can see on this bottom image right here where he actually glues with Elmer’s glue colored glass to clear glass and then grouts over [ ? ] for everything.

Like mirror, Zagar also considers ceramic to be a magic material. Ceramic pieces make up the majority of Zagar’s mosaic filler. Zagar calls the process of filling in the ground of his mosaics, seaming. The ceramics he uses are a mix of anything and everything. They’re high fire ceramics, low fire urban ware, stoneware, porcelain, terracotta, handmade mass produced, and pieces of his own work as well as by other ceramic artists and plain industrial tiles as well. Some have flat or low relief, others are highly three dimensional or are actually [ ? ] sculptures on their own that he’s just embedded.

Zagar uses an array of techniques to create his own tiles, which is something that he does that is really interesting is that he makes his own tiles, which he later embeds into the mosaic. Here he creates lace doily tiles by pressing lace doily’s actually in the clay. When Michelle Obama and her daughters actually visited Philadelphia in 2009, he got them to make some, so those lace doily tiles are somewhere in a mosaic but nobody knows where.

He also creates tiles from scratch using stamps and molds which we still have. He uses molds more historically than he does today and during the 1980’s, he ornamented many tiles with photo decals. Most commonly though, what he does is he re-glazes standard issue tiles that you’d get at Lowes or Home Depot. He has a small kiln in his basement where he paints out his friezes or images.

During Zagar’s residency at the Kohler Foundation, he created many large scale high fired ceramics that he could not create in his Philadelphia studio. These pieces are decorated with a wider variety of friezes and truly showcase his painting skills. In addition to his own work, Zagar includes the work of other ceramic artists. His tiles stand out against the abundance of more mundane tiles. For example there are many tiles by Karen Singer and David Scott Smith in the mosaic murals throughout the city and according to PMG staff, although I haven’t found it and I’ve been looking, there is one tile by Henry Chapman Mercer that’s hidden somewhere in PMG.

Also Zagar commissioned tiles and other sculptures based on his drawings from [ ? ]  Waterjet, which is a waterjet [ ? ] company so they’ve done a lot of work for him. And significantly also Zagar uses many ceramics that are broken in shipment to his wife’s art gallery , the Ives Gallery. These broken pieces include folkart ceramics form Indian, Caribbean, Ecuadorian, Mexican artists, many of whom Zagar calls friends and many of whom he actually commissioned work from. Some of the distinguished folk artists showcased in Zagar’s work include the Martinez  [ ? ], okay, I’m going to mispronounce these, I’m really sorry, of the Oaxaca region, Candalario Medrano and Jorge Wilmot. The extensive collection of tiles form Jorge Wilmot is especially noteworthy. He’s a very famous Mexican ceramicist and Zagar has more than 3000 of his tiles throughout his work.

Zagar’s mosaic’s also include a variety of other materials much like all these other artists. He uses stone, slate, marble, shell, metal sculptures, a lot of bicycle wheels. He also incorporates photographs which are stuck in the cement, entire painted canvases, hand carved wooden elements, paper, paper Mache, and plastic objects. Zagar has built such a reputation that people often donate their broken or surplus tiles to him. Zagar’s friends and fans all bring him material they had or find. Companies such a [ ? ] Waterjet and Lowes donate their scrap or damaged material. Some homeless people apparently even contributed found items and of course Zagar himself is a notorious dumpster diver, always accumulating treasures from dumpsters and abandoned buildings.

All of these materials are held in place with what is my favorite material of all, which is Zagar’s candy colored cement grout. This is an image from a ceiling actually inside the PMG in his studio in the back. the grout is comprised of liquid coloring, Portland cement, he tries to use white when he can get a hold of it and fine white sand. originally Zagar used acrylic paints to color the grout. Now he uses chemical dyes such as universal colorants from Pratt and Lambert Chemical Dyes for chromacolor dyes. Zagar rejects using colorants designed for concrete because ” They tend to look like my dyes when my dyes have been bleached by the sun and used in the rain. They are not rich in color, they’re very bland for the most part.” The grout mix is roughly three part sand, one part cement and Zagar adds the colorant by eye but suggest adding an eighth of a quart of dye to four gallons of grout but he really does it by eye and it really depends on how flush he is. The wealthier he is at the time that he’s making a batch of grout, the more dye he’ll use because it’s expensive. Water is also added by eye. It’s all craft processed. Other elements are combined in a large trough with a hoe. Specific colors do not matter to Zagar. His concern is primarily that the dyes are used to the richest and most vibrant capacity. Unfortunately, a lot of this colored grout on the exterior surfaces is really starting to fade and it no longer showcases the true color of the grout.

While there’s a long history of coloring mortar, stucco’s and concrete, few craftsman or artists have achieved such color intensity. In part this is because Zagar does not [ ? ] in accordance with any ASTA [ ? ] or any standards for that matter or building codes. His primary concern is in implementing his vision and in this case, achieving intensely colored grout. Zagar has transformed a traditionally sacrificial material  into one of central importance. I believe that this innovative approach to grout is significant.

So here’s where he puts it all together. This is sort of a methodology he’s developed over the last forty years. so what he does, and these are images actually from different classes, he now has classes where he tricks people into paying to do his work. The construction method that Zagar uses for mosaic murals is very similar to traditional mosaic construction. Zagar believes so strongly in his process that he is has perfected that he has even processed a short manual describing his technique. For years, Zagar worked alone but in the last decade or so, that’s changed and he’s hired several assistants. Now he even offers classes and workshops throughout the year. The workshops are an opportunity for Zagar to create his work with volunteer hands. He always designs a master concept and directs the installation. The work at the end of the day is still his.

Like most mosaic artists, Zagar uses broken pieces of hard material held together in soft binder. However, Zagar does not prepare a bedding layer. Instead he uses water based adhesive to hold the individual pieces in place until he’s ready to cover the entire work with a surface applied layer of grout. Zagar works directly on whatever wall surface he has. There is generally no preparation of the [ ? ] and his only requirement is that it be porous and unpainted. Zagar may alter the substrata if it unevenly stuccoed. In this case he [ ? ] the surface with plaster until he achieves the smooth desired texture. For example, Zagar constructed large wooden frames at Eleventh and Fitzwater and [ ? ] inside them, and that’s actually an image of Eleventh and Fitzwater. First Zagar attaches large tiles with blobs. The blobs are what they sound like, they’re large colored cement blocks where he puts different found objects into. The blobs are approximately two feet in diameter. Given their large size and weight, they’re screwed into the substrate. The back of each is [ ? ] with a water based adhesive and then stuck into the wall. Zagar has used various adhesives over the years but currently over the last several years, he’s been using mapei because it dries quickly and allows him to work faster which lets him cover more ground. Once the blobs are attached they [ ? ] as compositions in acrylic paint or chalk. this process is extremely important to the artist. He sees it as wholly his own.

For all the classifications people will find Zagar mosaics, murals, folkart etcetera, he sees himself as a painter first and foremost. He said, “The mosaics that I’m doing are more painting than reproduction painting. Mostly what mosaics are is reproductive technique. The way I use it, it’s an intuitive process that’s more like painting.” Zagar’s painting is his signature. Zagar does not compose his mosaics in advance. He may have an image in his mind but he not only painstakingly maps off his projects, he makes small scale studies before diving in. The composition happens the moment he touches his paintbrush to a wall. Some of the images are autobiographical, some are fantastical but they all tell a story. For example, House of the Two Writers outside 724 Mildred Street, [ ? ] fittingly two writers,  one works for the Philadelphia Enquirer and the other is an accomplished novelist. Zagar’s work is not about politicians such as [ ? ] or historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin. Instead it’s about locals such as, Mike Mattio, plumber and C. Royce Ettinger, printer and engraver.

But the census record or diary entry say his mosaics are another document of the lives of ordinary people in the places that they live and of course, most often of Zagar’s online. in addition to the main themes, there is a catalog of reoccurring imagery that Zagar recycles throughout his work. For example Zagar may include many sexualized images. Both he and Julia are usually depicted naked. Dreams and dreaming are frequently featured and can be seen in the [ ?] at the Church of the Crucifixion on Eight Street.  And now, a menagerie of fish and animals also make appearances. [ ? ] short inspirational phrases. One of Zagar’s trademark phrases is, ” Art is the center of the real world,” which is often accompanied by “Philadelphia is the center of the art world.” Zagar certainly has done his part to make this ring true.

So after he does this, Zagar then lines either side of his paint strokes with running strips of mirror, which you can see the woman doing an image over there, which is then followed by completely filling the rest of the composition with all of the aforementioned materials, each with a gob of adhesive on the back. Zagar’s is indiscriminate about which tiles go where. He stresses, “Do not worry about the color of the tile your using, they do not matter, the color or shape of the tile is of little consequence to the outcome. Do not hold fast in your mind to any spot or favorite placement of a particular tile. There’s no such place, repeat, there’s no perfect placement.” Whatever he pulls out of his bucket and wherever [ ? ] at is where it was meant to be. His adhoc improvisation is essential to Zagar’s method of working.

Once all the tiling is complete, Zagar hand mixes a batch of [ ? ] concrete and the applies it generously to the surface working it in with a large sponge. because the grout is hand mixed, each batch is slightly different. One mosaic mural may have multiple batches, each which are a different color. After [ ? ] is applied, the final stage of dry feathering begins. Feathering is the cleaning, buffing process Zagar uses while the grout is drying. he gently buffs the surface of the mosaic with a cloth glove repeatedly until the edges are clearly demarcated and the grout seams are fairly flat. Lastly, Zagar puts the finishing touch. He repaints his initial schematic outline in acrylic paint. As you can see her actually has his volunteers doing on the far image.

The painted lines replicate the original composition that he drew and delineate the silhouettes that have become lost in the loud, chaotic mosaic. While Zagar’s unique materials and construction methods [ ? ] stunning compositions. They also create a conservation nightmare or dream depending on your point of view.

Indeed, Zagar’s mosaics have already begun to deteriorate in a variety of ways and in some cases, as a direct result of Zagar’s materials and methods. For instance, often Zagar’s work expands over one or more buildings. While their surfaces [ ? ] between the two buildings, there is often a vertical crack that disrupts the work. Cracks are also prone to occur at the corner of a buildings and are appearing in several columns at PMG. Also, metal elements, both sculptural and structural are rusting. Wooden objects are rotting and the mirror which makes up a predominant visual component of his mosaics are de-silvering. Also trouble [ ? ] is the grout is becoming clouded over with sort of a white haze. These are only a handful of the many conditions that need to be addressed in the conservation and maintenance protocols in the years to come.

In conclusion, [ ? ] gave a better understanding of Zagar’s artistic process, materials, and methodology and that this will help future efforts to conserve Zagar’s art environment. More research, scientific analysis and testing is necessary to better understand the many material deterioration issues currently present in Zagar’s work. And of course, the preservation challenge that Zagar’s work faces are far greater than the conservation challenges alone. Thank you.

Church:     Question and answer period.

Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

Speakers Biography

Sarah Modiano is a conservation technician with Materials Conservation Collaborative in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She has assisted in the conservation of various landmarks in the greater Philadelphia area including the Rodin Museum, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Nemours Mansion. In 2011, Sarah earned her Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation where she won honors for her thesis, “Magical Mosaics: Preserving Isaiah Zagar’s Philadelphia Art Environment.” Prior to attending Columbia, Sarah worked for three years in the development office of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Sarah received her Bachelor’s degree in History from Brown University in 2006.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119