by Jessie Lynn McMains
On the north wall of the Nielsen, Madsen, and Barber building, at 1339 Washington Avenue, there is a mosaic mural. Whether you are driving or walking past, it is impossible to miss. Strange beings loom out at you—mermaids, creatures with fish where their arms should be, beings whose limbs and eyes and heads are wildly out of proportion. They swim over each other, flowing together in amoeba-like ways. They sparkle in the sunlight.
Should you decide to get a closer look at the mural, you will discover so much more. The fence surrounding the property is a combination of wrought iron and cement, and the cement parts are also mosaicked; covered with glitter rabbits and birds. Between the wrought iron bars, you get a glimpse of tall grasses and flowers growing wild, interspersed here and there with sculptures. Once you walk through the gate and into the lot, it feels like you’ve left the humdrum city and entered a place of magic.
When I was a child, before my family moved to Racine, we lived in the Philadelphia area. Even after we left, I remained friends with some people who still lived not too far from Philly, and later made other friends who lived in the city itself. Because of these friends, I returned to Philadelphia many times over the years.
In the summer of 2001, I went out east to visit my friend Ali, and we went to Philly for a weekend. We spent most of the first day wandering South Street, and Ali said there was some rad art I had to see. To be honest, at that time in my life I was more interested in trying to recreate the events of a certain Dead Milkmen song than in looking at art. But Ali was an artist, and I trusted her opinions on pretty much everything—when she said there was something I had to see, I wasn’t going to say no. So we took a walk to the once-vacant lots near 1020 South Street, and there it was—a strange and beautiful urban art installation, a land of mosaics and walls layered with found objects. Stacks upon stacks of broken bricks and busted cement, paint, rusted bicycle wheels, glass bottles blue and green. Junk, but make it art. It was weird, it was rad, it was thrilling. It was a magic garden in the middle of a Philadelphia neighborhood.
That was before the place became what it is now; before it was called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. But I fell in love with Isaiah Zagar’s work that day, and returned to that location every time I visited Philly after that.
In 2008, I found out that a mosaic garden, featuring the work of Isaiah Zagar, was being built in Racine. I was so excited to have a bit of one of my almost-hometowns in another of my hometowns. Except—I didn’t live in Racine when it opened, and a year later I moved to the west coast. But I came back to visit a few times a year, and then I moved back here, and for almost a decade I’d drive through Uptown saying: “Next time I’m in this neighborhood, I’m finally going to stop and really see it.” I did not do that until July of this year.
Inside this magic garden, there are the mosaics (the work of Isaiah Zagar and Clifford Goodenough). There is also an urban prairie. Part of the lot was sown with a cover crop of oats, and then twenty-four native broadleaf plants and six grasses were introduced. The perennials attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, and all the plants are working together to build a new soil base. One day, hopefully, it will be safe to use for food production. The prairie garden also has a large water retention tank for collecting rainwater from the roofs, which is then used to keep the plants watered, instead of purchasing water from the city.
And then there are the sculptures, and other odds and ends. Placed throughout the prairie, and sitting above the murals, there are pieces by Kate Remington and Michael Pugh—armless, headless bodies and torsos in the tall grass; bears and birds, cats and monstrous faces on the buildings and fences. There are also stacks and configurations of rusted metal, cinder blocks, stones, and wood.
Outdoor art installations in the middle of cities, urban gardens, even just regular vacant lots left to grow wild—places like this always feel like they’re outside of not only the bustle of the city, but also a bit outside of time. The Uptown urban prairie, mosaic, and sculpture garden is no exception. When I finally walked through those gates in July, the world stilled around me. I could hear the cars going by on Washington Avenue, and all the other city sounds, but they seemed more distant than they actually were. And though I was only there for twenty minutes, I had the sense that time had stretched out. Those twenty minutes felt like an hour. It was as though I had stepped into a tiny pocket universe in the middle of Uptown, a pocket universe made of shine and rust and flowers.
Mosaics appeal to me in the much the same way collages do. Whether it’s a mosaic artist using seashells, broken shards of mirrors, and bits of dishes (all things which were used to create the Uptown mosaics), or a collage artist using old photographs, pieces torn from vintage newspapers, and scraps of fabric—I like it when things that might otherwise be thrown away are repurposed. There’s the environmental aspect of repurposing materials rather than tossing them out, but it also appeals to me in a sentimental way. These objects, which had a meaning and a purpose, are given new meanings and purpose, new life, instead of being relegated to the trash bin and the landfill. And I like the character of collages and mosaics—the mojo which occurs when objects of disparate sizes, shapes, colors, and textures are layered or rearranged.
While working on this piece, I communicated with Brenda Thomas, who fell in love with mosaic art because of the installation in Uptown. “In 2008, I saw the mosaics on the walls of the buildings on Washington Ave.,” she wrote to me. “I was star-struck, and vowed to learn this process and be a part of a creation like this somewhere in the country. In 2010, my dream came true. I…flew to Philadelphia to join Isaiah Zagar in a class, along with sixteen other people. For three days we cut glass, glued tiles, and grouted a finished 80’ wall at the back of a parking lot.” She went on to say: “This year, I had the opportunity to help repair and restore the installation…here in Racine. Linea [Anthony] and Clifford [Goodenough]…” [the owners of the property] “…asked if I would join them in this task. YES! The weather participated also, and in three weeks our mission was complete.” “I can attest to [Clifford’s] artistic ability,” she added, “and both his and Linea’s dedication to this mosaic installation. I’d love to see more mosaics around this city.”
I, too, would love to see more mosaics (and sculptures and urban prairies) in Racine. In the meantime, we have the space in Uptown. If you find yourself in the area, I urge you to stop and explore. Don’t wait years like I did. Park your car, slow your walk. Enter this magic garden, let the bustle of the city and the busyness of your life fall away. Listen to the hum of the bees, wave to the mermaids, watch everything shine.
- More information about Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (and Isaiah Zagar’s other work) can be found here.
- While researching this piece, I discovered that one of Zagar’s other installations is located in Alameda, California. Though it was completed the year before the one in Racine, I was unaware of its existence when I lived nearby, in Oakland. It’s kind of uncanny that three of Zagar’s works are in places I have connections with; places I’ve lived in or near. What are the odds?
- I’d love to hold an outdoor poetry event in the Uptown mosaic garden, sometime next spring or summer. Who wants to help me make that happen?