Isaiah Zagar’s urban mosaic wonderland

Isaiah Zagar

Artists dates unknown
1020 South Street
Philadelphia, PA
Mosiac environment

Jawdropping good stuff everywhere you turn is how I’d describe what Isaiah’s tile work. Because there’s so much of it and it’s so damned beautiful. He’s been doing mosaics on and inside buildings around Philly’s South Street since 1969, when he says he had a nervous breakdown as a reaction to the turmoil of the times.

“I’m not doing this to be famous” he says. “I just want them to let me work.” And work he does, mixing concrete and applying it onto walls of buildings that he has bought up over the years, and then rents out to people who then live in the art and pay him rent.

What Isaiah figures he needs is a sponsor. He’s hot on the notion it should be Rolling Rock, since he really likes their beer. And he’s a big time coffee drinker too, which you could guess when you see how much square footage his mosaics cover.

Isaiah teaches classes in making this kind of stuff because, as he says, his goal is to tile the world, “and I can’t do it all myself.”

(The following is excerpted from Philadelphia Magical Gardens)

Isaiah Zagar is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found on over 100 public walls throughout the city of Philadelphia and around the world. Born in Philadelphia and raised in Brooklyn, Zagar received his B.F.A. in Painting and Graphics at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York City. When he was 19 years old, Zagar discovered the folk art installations of Clarence Schmidt in Woodstock, New York. Influenced by Schmidt, Picasso, Jean Debuffet, Curt Schwitters, Antonio Gaudi, Simon Rodia and Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, he was inspired to include the concepts of untrained artists as manifestations of fine art.

Zagar’s artwork is heavily influenced by his travels and the personal connections he has made with international folk and visionary artists. Isaiah and his wife Julia completed three years of Peace Corps service in Peru in the mid-1960s, working with folk artists in the Puno region near Lake Titicaca. Soon after, they settled in Philadelphia and began their lifelong work of creating public art and fostering creativity in all its varied forms.

In addition to his three-year Peace Corps service in Peru, Isaiah has completed artist residencies in Tianjin, China and Rajisthan, India. He also participated in a residency at the Kohler Ceramic Factory in Wisconsin.

Zagar’s work is included in the permanent collections of numerous art institutions, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and has been featured in solo exhibitions throughout the Philadelphia area. Zagar has received grants for his artistic excellence from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Charitable Trust for his work in Interdisciplinary Arts.

Isaiah Zagar has gained recognition in various films and publications, most notably in the 2008 documentary, In A Dream, created by his son, Jeremiah Zagar. He has spoken at several prominent conferences and artists’ lectures both domestically and internationally. Through 40+ years of creating artwork on a grand, public scale, Zagar has helped shape Philadelphia into a thriving creative community.

(Photos courtesy of Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations)

Bibliography & Links:

“In a Dream” by his son Jeremiah Zagar…winner of SXSW 2008 Emerging Visions Audience Winner.

IN A DREAM: Theatrical Trailer from Union HZ on Vimeo.

Over the past four decades, artist Isaiah Zagar has covered more than 50,000 square feet of Philadelphia with stunning mosaic murals. In A Dream is a documentary feature film that chronicles his work and his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Julia. It follows the Zagars as their marriage implodes and a harrowing new chapter in their life unfolds.

“Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations Coast to Coast Travel-o-Pedia” by Randy Mason, et. al., Kansas City Star Books, 2009.

“Raw Vision Outsider Art Sourcebook”  Raw Vision, Ltd., 2002.

“Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Environments” by Roger Manley and Mark Sloan, Aperture, New York, 1997.

On DVD – Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, “Next Stop New England”, KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, 2003.

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