Life via Glass Mosaics and Magic Gardens in Philadelphia

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle

The wise words of yesteryears could not ring more true when pondering over the art that so casually surrounds us on a daily basis. Which is why, aside from the fact that I was educated in Philadelphia, the city’s art culture lures be back, periodically.

philadelphia magic gardens art history south street @sssourabh

Philadelphia is known as the mural city.

philadelphia magic gardens art history south street @sssourabh

Legend – or perhaps reality – has it that if one is caught doing graffiti or vandalism, their punishment is to paint a beautiful mural on a gigantic wall. Whether it’s true or not, it definitely helps to cater to the bohemian art charm that the first city of America has.

Which is why a family trip to Philadelphia is not complete without a visit to one of my favorite hideouts: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Specked right onto South Street, a haven of culinary escapes, it is an Alice in Wonderland of sorts. It even embodies a labyrinth allows you to get lost in everything from broken mirrors to bike wheels, discarded art and unwanted pots of china tea.

philadelphia magic gardens art history south street @sssourabhphiladelphia magic gardens art history south street @sssourabh

It is actually, as it turns out, a non-profit organization. It was created by Isaiah Zagar, as an immersive experience of blending indoor and outdoor galleries with nontraditional materials as a way to envelope stories, memories and art. While there are many references to Zagar‘s family life and community, there is something in every splinter of china, spoke of a wheel, glass bottle or hand etched tile that speaks to viewers about their own experiences.

The splintered glass and chipped tiles spoke the most to me, perhaps because of the metaphorical meaning that they were pieces of a separated lifetime that were still at one within this haven. Or perhaps due to my own mildly macabre imagination.

philadelphia magic gardens art history south street @sssourabh

On speaking with a few others, I found that along with his wife Julia, Zagar actually coined a South Street Renaissance period in the late 60s, when a highway was to destroy South Street. By adding colorful mosaics on walls, a facelift of sorts was given to the South Street neighborhood that was a catalyst in fueling an art driven protest. As such, the neighborhood visibly respects the art form, and there are sprinkles of it in many streets. A similar demolition threat led to the incorporation of the gardens as a non-profit organization, and has only been open to the public since 2008.

With a mission to “inspire creativity and community engagement by educating the public about folk, mosaic, and visionary art“, the place does more than just inspire – it empowers one to imagine.

And while no classical framework can best embrace the strategy of preserving art, the persistence and dedication to craft is what must be truly praised in this story.

As Pablo Picasso had truthfully said, and I rightfully experienced: “Art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life.”

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