Artist Isaiah Zagar Embraces the New

Like so many buildings in Philadelphia, Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic work — a readily identifiable mix of tile, mirror and pottery shards — is just one of hundreds in the city. They are so omnipresent, even people who don’t know his name recognize his work.

It wasn’t hard to spot artist Isaiah Zagar among the patrons outside South Philly’s Black and Brew, where we met a few weeks ago. If his trademark snow-white hair and beard hadn’t given him away, his posture — hunched over a drawing pad — served as confirmation.
We met there on a weekend morning, not too far from Zagar’s Magic Gardens on South Street, an indoor-outdoor art installation and museum that’s become one of Philadelphia’s most popular tourist destinations and event venues. The space has rotating exhibits; right now, the exhibit is called “Dear Julia,” and is comprised mostly of images of Zagar’s wife.
Like so many buildings in Philadelphia, Black and Brew’s exterior is covered with Zagar’s mosaic work, a readily identifiable mix of tile, mirror and pottery shards, some painted with words, others with faces. It is just one of hundreds of Zagar mosaics in the city. They are so omnipresent, even people who don’t know his name recognize his work.
As Zagar sipped his espresso, I asked if it was strange to sit in a public space so dominated by his own artistic vision, and to live in a city where so much of him is on display.
“A lot of people ask that question,” he said. “People want to know how it feels because they don’t have that situation, and they think it’s a unique situation. But to me, it’s what is. So it doesn’t feel different.”
What does feel different is Zagar’s degree of celebrity, which has increased significantly in the past few years, due, in part, to In a Dream, his son Jeremiah’s HBO documentary. That — along with the very public battle to save the Magic Gardens, which was threatened with demolition several years ago — raised Zagar’s profile.
“I’ve reached celebrity status,” he said, “but I have no idea about that except on the rare occasion where I will come into a room and sit down next to somebody, and we’ll both realize that I’m me and I see goose pimples on their body, which means that which is celebrity is manifesting in a physical reaction.”
Zagar seemed slightly disconcerted by that fact.
“The work that I’ve done has amounted to this moment in time where I am he who has manifested that. But to me, I’m just a guy who has dirty nails.”
In recent years, Zagar has expanded his artistic practice to the online realm, using  Instagram both as a tool for creation and as a showcase for work new and old. He said the technology meshes perfectly with his process.
“My artistic process for over 40 years has been autobiographical,” he said. “It is autobiographical in intent and everyday life.”
The photos of his new cat, for instance, or of him lying on the grass in the sun, contribute to the ongoing representation of the self.
Then there are his captions, which he dictates to Apple’s voice recognition software, Siri. Sometimes Siri gets his words right; other times, she mangles them. He doesn’t correct the mistakes.
“I allow [the mistakes] because it’s part of my artistic process to accept everything,” Zagar said.
“I want to be easily criticizable. I want to be easily made a fool of. I want people to say, ‘He’s a fool. He’s not clear. He doesn’t understand what he’s saying.’”
But people aren’t calling Zagar a fool because of the errors in the captions. Instead, they see a sort of poetry in them or, at the very least, a challenge. In April, for instance, Zagar posted a photo of himself working on a wall, erasing some lines he’d made.
The caption read: “I begin the process of a racing my Lord I’m good a racing my art yeah I’m not racing my heart or my heart I am in racing I am in racing Siri you’re as bad as all the old Bitties in the neighborhood you can understand me one bit you cannot understand me one bit in anyway no one reads what I say anyway so I can say anything I wantI love you.”
Naturally, he gets plenty of responses. One reads: “But… we DO read it 🙂 it is like a puzzle everytime …”
“People are trying to decipher what I’m saying,” Zagar said. “They’re using their mental ability to take two words that are probably one word to put them together into that one word again.”
Textual interpretation is not unfamiliar to Zagar, who grew up in Brooklyn in a family of rabbis. They’d originally come from Lithuania, where they were involved with the Vilna Goan, the 18th-century Torah scholar who became one of the most influential leaders in modern Jewish history.
“I had early training in Judaism by going to Orthodox Hebrew school,” he said. “I was an absent-minded kid, but I was brilliant in terms of remembering stories, and the Bible is filled with stories. The rabbi would say, ‘You should be a rabbi. You’re one of us.’”
Though Zagar didn’t feel the spiritual call, he was fascinated by the literature of Judaism, as he puts it. When he was 19, he spent a summer in Woodstock, N.Y., studying the writings of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
At Woodstock he met a monk from Latrobe, Pa., and asked if he could come live at the monastery and work on a series of etchings based on the book of Jeremiah. The monk agreed, which is how a nice Jewish boy ended up eating supper every night at a table next to a bunch of monks and a group of newly arrived East German nuns who didn’t speak a word of English.
While at the monastery, he also completed a book about Jesus.
Zagar said his Judaism has been very influential in his work, as was that time in Latrobe.
“Latrobe, Pa., is where Rolling Rock was made,” he pointed out. “And Rolling Rock was founded in 1939, the year that I was born. I have a lot of bottles of Rolling Rock in my work, so it all fits in. It’s called predetermination.”
After the summer at Woodstock, he changed his name from Irwin to Isaiah. When his sons were born, he named them Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
These days, Zagar and his wife — who owns the Eyes Gallery, a South Street institution — lead a primarily secular life.
But Zagar does refer to being Jewish from time to time on his Instagram captions.
It’s hard to imagine what someone unfamiliar with Zagar’s work would think if they saw his individual posts without other images for context.
“If a stranger finds my Instagram account and goes back from the very beginning, they have a whole biography,” Zagar said.
He likes that idea.
There are more than 5,000 people who follow Zagar’s Instagram account regularly, and this exposure, he is sure, is partly what accounts for the success of the Magic Gardens.
As an example, Zagar mentioned a New Yorker article he recently read about the late artist Niki de Saint Phalle — “a celebrity of the first order” — whose museum gets 75,000 visitors per year.
“The Magic Gardens gets over a hundred thousand visitors a year, from all over the world,” Zagar said, with wonder. “Without the Internet, that would not be the case. It’s a whole different world — a different wonderful world.”
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Liz Spikol is the Jewish Exponent's editor in chief; she has worked for the publication for four years. Prior to that she was at Philadelphia magazine, Curbed Philly and the before-its-time Tek Lado, a magazine for bilingual Latinx geeks. She is active in the American Jewish Press Association and contributes to the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Baltimore Jewish Times, Washington Jewish Week and Phoenix Jewish News. A Philly native, Spikol got a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College and a master's at the University of Texas at Austin. She lives in Mt. Airy.


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