Summer Learning 5: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.” – Isaiah Zagar

We went to Philadelphia during the last week of June to celebrate my nephew’s wedding. Congratulations Courtney and Brendan!

Courtney and Brendan at the rehearsal dinner

Lucky for us, they chose Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens as the venue for the rehearsal dinner. I say “lucky for us” because I have visited the site before and I absolutely love it there. To visit the Magic Gardens is to step into an environment of tile and found objects affixed in mosaic form to the floors, walls, ceilings, and more by artist Isaiah Zagar. Isaiah Zagar is an award-winning mosaic mural artist whose work can be found on more than 200 public walls throughout the city of Philadelphia and around the world. Brendan spoke about the artist as he welcomed all of us to the exquisite setting:

With a singular vision and tremendous energy, Isaiah Zagar has created this space, which is a feast for the eyes and playground for the imagination:

ART 2038 – outside looking in

Walkways and twists and turns
The sum of its parts
The wall ridges are my favorite spaces

When you begin to look at its parts rather than the intense expanse of light and color, you start to think about the many individual interesting pieces and how they are all arranged, held together, and supported.

Steps above and below
Wall ridge with tiled background and rebar
Where the mountains meet the sea visual metaphor(?)
Tower of Magic
Tiled wall from street
Blues and oranges and reds and greens
A propensity for eyes
Organic vs. Geometric
Bicycle wheels

There are snippets of text interspersed, seeming to call attention to corresponding imagery, or at least you wonder about that. The photo below references Las Pozas, the environmental folk art site of artist Edward James:

Las Pozas – Begin 1967 – Folk Art
Isaiah Keep Working
The very essence of existence
Sources of Inspiration

We couldn’t help noting there were more than a few toilets (porcelain) included as found objects:

Found objects everywhere

And this one in the actual restroom, derivative of Marcel Duchamp:

Marcel Duchamp fans will appreciate this

It was a great celebration in a beautiful, magical space!

It was a great celebration!
The dinner spot empty (almost)

I’m including this post in my series of Summer Learning posts because the visit to the Magic Gardens has reawakened an interest in mosaics in me, which in turn, may impact my students. I have done mosaics with my students in the past, this type in particular when we were refurbishing the school courtyard just over ten years ago – you can read more about that here. In the photo below, you can see the bird bath we created with terra cotta flower pots covered in mosaics. At the top of the photo you can see one of the stepping stones we made with mosaics on concrete pavers. For this type of mosaic, we just placed the objects in grout and let them set.

Mosaic bird bath
Mosaic bird bath
Mosaic stepping stone

Around this same time, I started a mosaic on the stucco chimney casing on our front porch. It began as a travelogue and incorporated many different found objects:

From there I started thinking about designed mosaics, less spontaneous with more of a planned approach. At first I broke old dishes and affixed them to a material called Wonderboard, which is a plaster board, to use as trivets on the table. This one incorporates dishes from my first house:

Remnants of dishes, pottery, tea pot

This one contains some of those early dishes, plus remnants of a vintage milk glass Robin Hood bowl from when my son was a toddler:

Robin Hood milk glass and dish remnants

And then, I started thinking about making my own tiles for mosaics. This trivet mosaic is on wood and is meant to be a commentary on global warming. I translated the blue and white of the earth to the blue and white of Dedham Pottery in the soup bowl here:

warm food
so good
warm earth
NOT so good

I facilitated clay projects like these with students a few years ago. The process of making one’s own tiles with clay,  including glazing and firing them, takes a long time. They are then placed on the wood, usually with glue, and then the grout is smeared over the tiles into the seams. Most tedious for my lower middle school students was the rubbing off of the grout from the tiles and polishing them to bring the sheen back. But, if you keep the projects small, it’s totally doable.

Let the beauty we love be what we do – Isaiah Zagar Photo by Anna Theresa Coskie

This post is part five of a group of posts about my self-directed professional development in the summer of 2019. To see the others, search Summer Learning or 2019 Summer PD.


  1. How I loved reading this and seeing your photography as well! Not only to joyfully reminisce time shared at Brendan & Courtney’s rehearsal dinner but to be able to see much that I didn’t have time to see this time. I look forward to a return visit. Mosaics are a medium that draws me in as well and I look forward to hands on exploration & creating in the Fall. Thank you for posting.

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