SUMR 2018 Tours Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

SUMR Blog

SUMR 2018 Tours Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

Experiencing the Wonderfully Weird Labyrinthine Mosaic Masterwork of Isaiah Zagar
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Photos: Hoag Levins

Rounding a corner in the labyrinthine Philadelphia Magic Gardens is Tania Calle, one of the University of Pennsylvania Summer Undergraduate Minority Research (SUMR) Scholars who toured the site. The group also visited the 11th annual African Festival hosted by the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA) on the Penn's Landing waterfront. Sponsored by LDI and the Wharton School Health Care Management Department, the annual three-month long SUMR program is aimed at underrepresented minority undergraduates and others interested in exploring potential careers in the field of health services research (HSR). Weekend trips to local historical and cultural centers help break up their intensive studies and daily research work with Penn faculty mentors. Click image for larger

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Philadelphia's sixteen-year-old Magic Gardens site at 10th and South Streets is a sprawling, multi-level work of outsider art executed across a space that once held three row homes. Architectural in size with fantastical interior shapes, every inch of every surface -- floors, walls, ceilings -- is covered in mosaics made from individual ceramic artworks as well as assemblies of rusted bicycle wheels, colored bottles, smashed and whole kitchen chinaware, shards of mirror, twists of iron and other odd and ends of industrial debris. Exploring one of the spaces (above, left) are SUMR Program Coordinator Safa Browne and SUMR Scholars Tania Calle and Zara Wermers.

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In a basement-level space are (above, left) SUMR Program Director Joanne Levy, Wharton School Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) Director Utsav Schurmans, and SUMR Program Coordinator Safa Browne. Around them, embedded in the mosaics are individual ceramic artworks of the artist who is responsible for all this, Isaiah Zagar. Above, right, SUMR Scholar Amanda Carrillo-Perez passes through one of the serpentine passageways that weave through the structure. Zagar, whose overall work has been supported by the Pew Charitable Trust and the National Endowment for the Arts, is also a member of the Philadelphia Dumpster Divers, an group of artists focused on creating art works from found objects.

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Another section of the site houses an art gallery featuring constantly changing exhibits of local and national artists who are working in the spirit of mosaic formats and found object assemblies. Above, left, SUMR Scholar Mohamed Abdirisak peruses the latest exhibit of flat artworks. Above, right, SUMR Scholars Christine Olagun-Samuel and Khalida Saalim, SPUR Scholar Sydney Bell, SUMR Scholars Ayomide Ojebuoboh and Tolu Omole check out a second gallery space.

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Wandering through the middle of it all is the 78-year-old artist himself, Isaiah Zagar (above, left), who has created massive mosaics in and around other Philadelphia buildings. He and his wife also own the Eyes Gallery of Latin American folk art on South Street -- an interest born during the three years they spent as 1960s Peace Corps workers in Peru. This latter fact explains the pieces of South American folk art embedded in cubbyholes throughout his Magic Gardens mosaics. In the open-air courtyard (above, right) that serves as the "front room" of his creation, Zagar used ten feet of custom-made ceramic tile letters embedded in concrete to spell out the declaration, "I built this sanctuary to be inhabited by my ideas and my fantasies."

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Grouped on one of the several stairways that traverse the structure's various levels (above, left), are [top row] SUMR Scholar Ayomide Ojebuoboh and SPUR Scholars Sydney Bell [middle row] SUMR Scholars Amanda Carrillo-Perez, Zara Wermers, Risha Sheni and Khalida Saalim [bottom row] SUMR Scholars Tolu Omole, Tania Calle, Mohamed Abdirisak, and SUMR Program Director Joanne Levy. Above, right, on another stairway are SUMR Program Coordinator Safa Browne, Zara Wermers and Tania Calle.

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Navigating a passageway on their way out are SUMR Scholars Tolu Omole and Risha Sheni. A closer shoe-level look at the larger image will show one of the many text messages, odes to other artists and lines of poetry embedded throughout the Magic Gardens. Above, right, one of the tunnel-like structures that cut through the site.

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The second half of the day was a visit to Penn's Landing (above, left), the central waterfront area of Philadelphia on the Delaware River. Through the fence beyond the SUMR group can be seen the Battleship New Jersey which is permanently berthed on the Camden, NJ, waterfront as a tourist attraction. Eight city blocks in length, the Penn's Landing area includes a boardwalk (above, right), hammock parks, a Seaport Museum, ferry landing, restaurants, skating rink, amusement park and large open-air performance venue that this day hosted the annual African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA) African Festival.

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Aside from having a large maritime history museum, the SUMR group found that Penn's Landing IS a museum of historic nautical vessels themselves. This includes the four-masted former cargo barque Moshulu (above, left) which is now a floating restaurant, the USS Becuna (above, right), a submarine that saw action in the Pacific during World War II, and the USS Olympia that was the flagship of Commodore George Dewey during the Spanish American War.

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The ferry from Camden (above, left) disgorges passengers into the ACANA Festival area in the Great Plaza at Penn's Landing, where dozens of African-related food and product vendors (above, right) have set up in the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge that also connects Camden and Philadelphia.

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Beneath a searing sun and 90+ temperatures, the SUMR group (above, left) joined the growing crowds watching warm up acts in the stage event sponsored by the PECO Energy Company.

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Featuring six hours of music, dance troupes and African cuisine, the ACANA Festival went on into the evening. ACANA is a Philadelphia non-profit that provides social and legal services along with art and cultural programs for communities of African and Caribbean immigrants both in Philadelphia and elsewhere across the country. The nineteen-year-old organization is primarily focused on assisting and supporting refugees from a variety of war zones in West African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone. Above, left, in the audience are SUMR Scholars Tolu Omole (checking his watch), Christine Olagun-Samuel, Mohamed Abdirisak, Khalida Saalim and Ayomide Ojebuoboh.