A man of mystery, a garden’s history,

A man of mystery, a garden's history,

staff staff

Fred Siegel entertains in the basement of the Magic Gardens. Creator of the Gardens, Isaiah Zager, sits front row.

KELLEY COSGROVE

There was magic in the air on
the evening of Sept. 6, 2010, as
Fred Siegel, longtime magician
and performer, entertained a
full room in the basement of
Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
The event was part of the
Philadelphia Fringe and Live
Arts Festival.
The heavily tiled walls of the
cramped room-covered from
floor to ceiling with fragmented
mirrors, colorful paintings,
and interesting objects-
offered the perfect backdrop
for Siegel’s performance of his
“Man of Mystery,” a humorous,
dramatic, and engaging
presentation detailing his journey
from curious child to master
magician.
The show, which elicited a
spur-of-the-moment encore
performance when dozens
more patrons than expected
showed up at the venue, was a
mixture of sleight of hand,
engaging biographical
accounts, and dream interpretation
performed by Fred’s performance
therapist, Dr.
Guenther Spiegelvogel, a curious
character who appeared
intermittently to pantomime
the magician’s accounts of his
strange and surreal dream
adventures.
The backdrop, which was at
least as engaging as the performance
itself, was the artwork
of award-winning mural
mosaic artist Isaiah Zager, who
has been creating awe-inspiring
mosaic murals in
Philadelphia for the past four
decades, including the Magic
Gardens–a lot tiled with mosaic
murals and sculpted into a
colorful mirror-filled labyrinth.
The Magic Gardens is a
mosaic installation that covers
half a city block with its indoor
gallery and outdoor art space,
both heavily tiled with Zager’s
mosaic murals. It is a folk art
space, community venue,
gallery, and nonprofit organization,
which showcases
Zager’s work.
The Magic Gardens, which
he began working on in 1994
and spanned 14 years in the
making, is his largest installation
to date, but it is only a
small corner of his full body of
work, which covers over
50,000 square feet of cement
walls in South Philadelphia.
The walls of the city have
been overtaken by Zager’s
work during the four decades
he has spent in Philadelphia.
The engaging murals are a testament
to the evolution of
Philadelphia’s art scene, and to
the creation of art as a community
experience, rather than
something to be locked up in a
gallery and bought and sold.
Zager grew up in Brooklyn,
and came back to Philadelphia,
his birthplace, in the late
1960s, after he and his wife
returned from a three-year stay
in Peru, working for the Peace
Corps. In Peru, they worked
with folk artists and learned
about community development.
In Philadelphia, they
employed what they learned to
save the South Street area from
imminent destruction, as it was
threatened by plans for the creation
of an expressway.
They opened up the Eyes
Gallery on South Street, where
they sold the folk art they had
acquired in Peru. Forty years
later, the Eyes Gallery is still
open, and South Street has
become just one part of the
thriving South Philadelphia
community-a community
that is filled with multiculturalism
and forward-thinking
artists, Zager among them,
whose murals haunt the walls
of Philadelphia.
Zager recalls, “In 1968, the
country was going through a
nervous breakdown-and I
had one, too.” The cure-the
only cure-was the creation of
art.
Zager has been working on
his mosaic murals nonstop
since his “nervous breakdown,”
at which time, he says,
he really became an artist.
“That’s when everything
became art,” he said,
“Everything.”
Zager was inspired by the
folk artists he met in Peru, as
well as a visit to upstate New
York, where he discovered the
folk art installations of
Clarence Schmidt, who had not
studied at an institution, but
used available materials to create
sprawling environments.
Zager was inspired to keep
working on his own art, those
mosaics which incorporate a
plethora of ideas, using words,
paintings, colors, and fragmented
mirrors.
“The mirrors,” Zager says,
“changed the way I see things.
They break everything up into
fragments that you have to put
back together yourself.” And
that is the essence of his work,
which is not a clear didactic
statement, but a poetic statement,
one that is meant to
reflect the viewer’s understanding
of the world, rather than
the artist’s.
The walls of South
Philadelphia have become
Zager’s gallery, and anyone
who wanders South Street has
become a serendipitous visitor
to that gallery, but the arts
community in Philadelphia
was not always so convinced
of his status as a “real artist.”
One turning point came in
1980, after Zager’s opening at
the Academy of Fine Arts. He
paraphrased the Beatles, calling
the event, “Isaiah Zager,
with a lot of help from his
friends.”
The night of the opening was
huge, featuring a dance party,
parade, live performances,
puppetry, and “more people in
costume than not in costume.”
Several artists created art dispensers,
which allowed people
to buy art for whatever donation
they wished to offer.
“People were able to go into
the Academy of Fine Arts, and
take out a piece of art for only
pennies, if they wanted to.”
Zager calls it “the wildest
event that ever occurred in the
Academy of Fine Arts-and
the papers didn’t even write
anything about it!” He smiles
as he recalls the curator
becoming so upset that she
locked herself in her room all
night.
“There were seven silk ponchos
delivered as part of a
mysterious dance performance
featuring seven women
dressed as me. They were so
precious they were locked up
in a vault-but the only
woman with the key to vault
had locked herself in her room
in the suburbs.”
The event received some bad
reviews, which Zager enjoyed.
One article claimed that the
Morris Gallery looked like a
Mexican restaurant turned
upside down, with the food
splattered all over the floor.
Zager made the article into an
etching, and has, ever since
then, made a pictorial etching
of every article about him.
He had a breakthrough, and
began working on his mosaic
murals in force. He wrote,
“Philadelphia is the center of
the art world, seeing is believing,”
then began to go about
making that statement a reality,
to flesh out the ghost behind
that.
“They were crazy words, or
fighting words, or insincere
words,” he recalls, “I started
working on the street–big
time.” He called it a sickness, a
cancer, whose only cure was
the continuous creation of art.
“It’s like a fungus, that got
other people, too. A sickness–
or a health?a cancer that
infected everyone?the
dancers, musicians, painters,
composers, writers?everyone.
You had to fight with it–or for
it.” And the infection was
expansive. “A lot of people
who don’t even talk to me are
infected. It’s a virus that caught
them, and the only way to get
better is to make more art. You
could call me a tick–a tick on
the butt of the city.”
Another turning point for
Zager was his work in the
1990s mosaic-tiling the facade
of the Painted Bride, an art
space that has been providing a
place for Philadelphia artists–
especially underrepresented
and minority groups–to exchange
ideas and showcase
their work since its inception
in 1969.
“Beforehand, I was considered
a South Street hippie,
more of a poseur than a real
artist,” Zager recalls, “They
said anybody who runs around
in the street naked to be photographed
can’t be a real
artist,” but while he worked on
the Bride, he could not ignore
the intent of being an artist,
that is, changing the look of
something, the process being
both grueling and rewarding.
Zager has no plans to stop his
daily work making mosaic
murals. “I’m 71 years old,
thinking it’s going to take a lot
to finish the project I’m working
on, and I’m already thinking
of another one.”
He is currently in his fourth
year of work on a 10,000
square foot space, which started
out as just an empty garage
with no lights, and now has
begun its transformation into a
tile and mirror mosaic, from
ceiling to floor.
At the end of his performance
in Zager’s gallery, Fred
Siegel, Man of Mystery,
voiced his gratitude for the
opportunity to perform at the
unique venue, while Zager sat
and watched from his seat in
the front row.
Asked what advice he would
give to aspiring performers and
artists, Siegel said, “Just keep
at it, and don’t stop,” and looking
around, added, “This place
is a testament to that.” The
faces among the painted tiles
on the walls seemed to nod
their approval.
Check out www.phillymagicgardens.
org for more information,
news, and a calendar
of upcoming events and community
workshops.