In April I attended the annual SAQA conference, held this year in Philadelphia. It was during a casual conversation with another registrant that I learned about the Magic Gardens. A short walk from our centrally-located hotel, I thought it warranted a visit.
To quote from the facility's brochure:
"Philadelphia's Magic Gardens is a nonprofit visionary art environment and community arts centre located in Isaiah Zagar's largest public artwork.
"Spanning half a block, the museum includes an immersive outdoor art installation and indoor galleries. Zagar created the space using nontraditional materials such as folk art statues, found objects, bicycle wheels, colourful glass bottles, hand-made tiles, and thousands of glittering mirrors.
"The site is enveloped in visual anecdotes and personal narratives that refer to Zagar's life, family, and community, as well as references from the wider world such as influential art history figures and other visionary artists and environments.
"In 1994, Zagar started working on the vacant lots located near his studio. He first constructed a massive fence to protect the area then spent years sculpting multi-layer walls out of found objects.
"In 2002, the Boston-based owner of the lots discovered Zagar's installation and decided to sell the land, calling for the work to be dismantled. Unwilling to witness the destruction of the now-beloved neighbourhood art environment, the community rushed to support the artist.
"After a two-year legal battle, his creation, newly titled Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, became incorporated as a nonprofit organization with the intention of preserving the artwork at the PMG site and throughout the South Street region."
The installation reminded me of a visit to the Hundertwasser museum in Vienna, with its mosaics and bizarre architecture. I felt that I had fallen down the "rabbit hole", separated from the real world and immersed in a strange and fantastic labyrinth.
This kind of art is often labelled as "outsider". But Isaiah Zagar is not a social isolate. He is a community activist. He earned his B.F.A. in Painting and Graphics from the Pratt Institute in New York City, and he has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
And if you have a chance to visit Philadelphia's Magic Gardens? Prepare to be amazed.