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Philadelphia's Magic Gardens - the Name Fits
Along South Street in Philadelphia, just two blocks from the Antique Row stop (#17) on the Philadelphia Trolley Works and Big Bus Company (a CityPASS attraction) sits another one-of-a-kind spot worth exploring--Philadelphia's Magic Gardens.
A 3,000-square foot open-air park, PMG is filled with mosaics of thousands of pieces of reclaimed pottery, hand-made tiles, folk art statues, bent wire, and eclectic castoff items. While some artwork is visible from the sidewalk, the affordable admission is worth the price to best grasp the artistry and scope of this unusual oasis in the center of America's fifth-largest city.
In 1994, in an effort to revitalize his neighborhood, artist Isaiah Zagar started building walls and making mosaics in what was then two vacant lots next door to his already-mosaic-filled studio. Ten years later, with community support, the Magic Gardens were incorporated as a nonprofit to preserve and protect this large-scale public artwork.
Inside PMG's fully-tiled gallery, newspaper articles about Zagar's 40-plus years in Philadelphia hang prominently, along with photos of and letters from famous visitors, including First Lady Michelle Obama. The outdoor area provides both a calm sense of retreat and an invigorating excitement in the the visually-stimulating space.
Many stairways, nooks and crannies wind throughout the gardens. Ethnic art pops up here and there among an abundance of green plants. Walkways feature distinctive sayings spelled out in tiles. Multi-segmented faces made of bottle-bottoms and glittering mirrors watch as visitors explore. A chandelier of bicycle parts hangs just above some central seating; other chairs and benches (be sure to see those shaped like turtles!) welcome visitors to sit a spell as well.
Besides being open daily for self-guided tours, PMG offers workshops for families and children, concerts, mosaic-mural outreach to schools, partnerships with other artists and site-specific programs.
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, along with some 30 other murals found in the 20 square blocks that surround PMG, offer a testament to Isaiah Zagar's personal credo, that “Art should not be segregated in museums; it needs to live free among us.” (Also worth noting is that his work is also included in many permanent collections in the City of Brotherly Love, including those at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.) Take just a few moments at PMG and you'll soon be caught up in contemplating the mystery of just how many individual pieces of broken ceramic, odd items, and uniquely-shaped shards were used to create the place's images and quotations. Spend an hour or more there and you'll leave entranced, just maybe inspired to create something yourself.
If your taste runs more toward what's at the Rodin Museum or the Barnes Foundation, take a chance and include PMG on your itinerary while in the City of Brotherly Love. Zagar's legacy is truly unique, even in a place so well-known for fabulous art!
Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147; (215) 733-0390; www.phillymagicgardens.org; hours vary by season.