in the heart of the Magic Gardens of Philadelphia

An exhibition in Pennsylvania’s capital features mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar’s monumental work, thought to be a cure for mental health issues.

Order from chaos. Amidst hundreds of gl bottles lined up, letters scattered on the walls, bicycle wheels and mosaics, strolling between the aisles of the Magic Gardens of Philadelphia becomes an enchanting – but also theutic – journey. Located less than an hour from New York, in the United States, the installation has the feel of a parallel world, somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and the palace of the postman Chevalwhere each object seems straight out of an old souvenir attic.

And for good reason: these fragments of life come from the tormented life of the mosaicist Isaiah Zagar, born in Philadelphia in 1939. When he was only 29 years old, the young man suffered from a severe depressive episode and attempted to end his life; released from hospitalization, the man who studied art in New York, begins to construct, piece by piece, a work of art with a cathartic aim. “VSis a way of rebuilding oneself little by little», Analyzes Silke Tudor, educator and speaker at the Magic Gardens. “Theydraws inspiration from his own life to fuel his work,likea diary. He records his dreams, his fantasies, his difficulties, significant news and even extracts from newspapers and books, on earthenware tiles.»

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More than 220 works across the city

Strongly influenced by the work of Clarence Schmidt and Simon Rodia, two American artists pioneers of experimental sculpture, Zagar developed his own method as a mosaicist, invoking a creation “deliberately very involuntary“. If the Magic Gardens represent his major work, the artist, now 84 years old, will have spent more than five decades adorning his hometown with more than 220 works, mainly concentrated in South Philadelphia.

But beyond the artistic aspect, it is indeed the theutic aspect that its creator intends to highlight. “VSis a bit like entering your mind», says Silke Tudor. “Hethere is no filter, everything is there. In a way, itis quite courageous to expose himself so much, even ifit is clear thatIsaiah cannot do otherwise.»

For over 29 years, Isaiah Zagar built the Magic Gardens in his personal residence. Threatened with demolition, the artist finally decided to turn it into an open-air museum. Lise Tavelet / Le Figaro

As the staff does not hold an official art therapist diploma, the Magic Gardens of Philadelphia remain in partnership with several educational centers, grouped under the aegis of the PEACE program, which supports the reintegration of young people suffering from psychosis. “Several groups come regularly to the Magic Gardens, accompanied by their therapists», says the educator. “We share Isaiah’s story, and provide space, materials and instructions for various art projects during the sessions.»

If Isaiah Zagar’s personal story resonates with visitors, it more broadly echoes “an important part of the history of art and human creation», she adds.

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“The Art of Fools”

Near the entrance, between two details referring to September 11, “The Art of Fools» is stamped on several mosaics. Further on, at the back of the gardens, several lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem, In a dark moment, are transcribed, each letter in a mosaic square. “What is madness if not the nobility of the soul”, we can read on the walls. Throughout the twists and turns in what represents a life’s work and twenty-nine years of work, the shards of mosaic appear like poignant pieces of life, immersed in a seemingly magical setting, but eminently more significant .

Nearly one in five Americans have mental disorders», recalls Silke Tudor. “Even without having experienced it, we necessarily know someone who suffers from it. It is from this perspective that Zagar’s work must be understood in context“, she insists. And to remember: “Once, a visitor who did not know the artist’s life stopped me to ask if Zagar suffered from bipolar disorder. After telling him his story, I ask him why he asked me that question. I have this toohe told me. And I see it on this wall.”»

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