The Magic Garden by Devon Miller-Duggan

The Magic Garden

I had driven past Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Garden in Philly (Philadelphia to those of you not from the mid-Atlantic) that I really had myself convinced that I had been there. There are over 200 Zagar or Zagar’s-student mosaics around Philly. ALL around Philly. Between those and the remarkable number of murals all over the place, Philly can be quite the visual feast from the street level, provided the traffic doesn’t kill you.

I am a huge fan of Outsider Art as well a s a passionate fan of High/Canonical Art. I just plain love to look at things humans make with their hands. Zagar, who has an art degree, is a particularly wonderful example of what happens when someone with canonical training lets their not-so-inner obsessive out to play with “outsider” media. “Magic” is right.

Anyway, I was apparently deluded about having been to the Magic Garden because GOODGOLLYMISSMOLLY, I’d have remembered that very clearly. Viscerally.

I’ve done a fair amount of mosaic—all in the prissily named “Pique Assiette” mode of using random and busted china. I’m sure I was inspired by years of loving to run into Zagar pieces all over Philly, but what really got me going was having a new bathroom built when we renovated the house to make an apartment for my mother. Context: this renovation, which added a whole new floor to our split-level was massive and happened in the months after my father had died. Hint: Do not make major renovations when you’re in the first year of major loss—grief is not a good decision-context. I made some stupid choices, including the Jacuzzi-type tub the contractor warned us that people never use as much as they think they will. But the goofiest decision I made was when the contractor gave me the name of the tile company he used so I could go pick out tile for the tub, I blurted out “Oh, I’ll do that myself.” The contractor rolled his eyes, asked me if I’d ever done anything of the sort, and then gave in (probably quietly planning how his crew would clean up my mess). But I did it—a pretty large Gaudi-esque swirl of trees around the tub and the sink. They turned out very well. Mosaic is not particularly complicated work. It’s not oil painting or throwing clay. And it was, in its way, very therapeutic to search out all the bits and pieces in thrift stores and on eBay, then break them up and sort them (I have always loved to sort things) and put them back together in a new order of my choosing. I stayed up into the wee hours listening to local news from Caribbean islands and Scandanavian countries (what’s on at 3 a.m. on our local NPR station), crouched in the tub making broken teacups into trees.

I also did a somewhat more Zagar-ish (it includes more 3-D bits) dark green border around our garage. The neighbors in our very NORMAL neighborhood have been remarkably tolerant.

I’ve also seen a fair amount of outsider work, like the Beer Can Castle in Colorado. But nothing really prepared me for the gorgeously quirky intersection of sophisticated inventiveness and wildness in the Magic Garden. You have the sense of being inside a profoundly connected and intelligent intentionality (brain/spirit) at the same time as the sensuality and physicality of the place (parts jut out everywhere and “windows” insist that your body follow them through the twisty spaces (body/eroticism). There seems to have been no “thing” that could be grouted in to a wall/floor/ceiling that Zagar couldn’t find a place for, and all of those things play with each other and with light and make sensual and brainy and joyous sense out of a mind that (Zagar lives with bi-polar disorder) is not always able to make sense to itself; because the world of the intangible is often full of darkness and intransigence, the Garden turns its embrace to the physical world to find grace. St. Paul would have hated it, which is recommendation enough for me, since Paul frequently ticks me off royally.

More to the point, I “got” it with every cell in my body and every chamber in my heart. If ever a place was simultaneously ridiculous and sacred, if ever a place embraced the mess of having to live in the physical world while being creatures of spirit, this is it.

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