I visited Philadelphia yesterday. We have a visitor, and we wanted her to see the Magic Gardens. I dig Magic Gardens for a variety of reasons. One is because it’s where Lieve and I were married.
Magic Gardens is hard to explain. It’s a gallery for the art of Isaiah Zagar. It is the art of Isaiah Zagar. In some ways, it is Isaiah Zagar.
Isaiah’s presence can be seen throughout the gallery, the ever present derby shows up in figures both recognizable and not. There is a small indoor gallery, in which smaller pieces and work by other artists is displayed, but the marvel is a 3,000 square foot multilevel sculpted space, covered with his signature style mosaics.
You see his work all over Philadelphia, sometimes just little bits, sometimes an entire wall, particularly on South Street. You know South street, even if you’ve never been to Philly.
South street remains “where all the hippies meet”. It has been a counter culture center since the sixties, when Isaiah first arrived. It was the place the punks hung out in the eighties, stores like “Zipperhead” and “Skinz” were the place to find clothes, and clubs like JC Dobbs and Theatre of the Living Arts had the latest music. Music was everywhere, it wasn’t uncommon for a band to plug into a store for power and play on the street. Then came Mayor John Street. There is nothing that I can write about his regime that is both accurate and suitable for all ages other than he made Rizzo look like a flower child. You may not know that Tony Hawk’s video game was based on a real place, because Mayor Street banned skateboarding in the place responsible for bringing the X-Games to Philly. Music in the street was obviously not part of Street’s vision of Philadelphia. Apparently he never met Martha Reese OR The Vandellas.
Isaiah had a studio next to a vacant lot at 1022-1026 South street, and in the nineties used the lot to create a garden. When the owners of the property decided in 2002 to sell it, the community banded together, formed a non profit group, and purchased the land, saving Isaiah’s work and creating Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Isaiah can often be found at the gardens, he was there the day we married. A petal fell from the rose on my lapel, and he handed it to me saying “I think this is yours” with the cutest smile. I invited him to join us, but he was busy with other things. We stopped by the spot where we married, it seemed much smaller than I remember. And warmer. The day of our wedding the air temperature was about thirty five degrees Fahrenheit, with a brisk breeze. There had been other people in the area, and I told them we were performing a wedding ceremony and they were welcome to stay. Our ceremony was in the Quaker tradition, unique to Pennsylvania. No officiator is required other than two adult witnesses, so two of our friends, and Lieve’s children, stood by and took pictures while we made our vows. As you can see in the video, it took just over a minute.
A friend found several of Isaiah’s sculptures in the woods one day. No signs or anything. I recognized the style but he still believes there’s a different kind of magic there, so he won’t reveal the location. Magicians can be like that.
After we visited the gardens, we took our visitor on a tour of South Philly, seeing more of Isaiah’s work scattered about, the neighborhood where I had lived, and lunch at Marra’s to complete the experience. We picked up cheesecake.
Last week, when we went to the Punk Rock Flea Market, I felt a little sad. Some punks haven’t aged well, but they’re keeping the spirit alive. When I came home from Philly, I saw that Courtney Love is playing the Theatre for the Living Arts in June. I bought tickets immediately.