Castle Builders: The Dreamwork of Isaiah Zagar

Late in the Edinburgh Festival of 2016 the founder of the Summerhall venue, Robert McDowell, introduced me  to a minor work of show-business magic.      The Castle Builder was one of those Fringe shows where you spend the first several minutes in your seat wondering what  am I doing here, and why is this man dancing in a card-board box?  And then a weird magic settles…

Edinburgh fringe 2016 the castle builder

The Castle Builder

I didn’t write about the show, as it was too late for any substantive review, but it stayed with me, partly because all the pictures I had taken were mistakenly on the video setting on my iPhone, so instead of photographs I had a series of short videos of large men lurching about,  that dance in my photo file to this day.

The Castle Builder broadly speaking was about people, mostly but by no means exclusively men, who go off and build something:  create their own worlds, in back yard constructions that take shape piece by piece over decades, and in time become celebrated artistic landmarks.   Or sometimes not.   It tends to be called “outsider art”, one of the more irritating critical labels.

Castle building is a better description.   It seems to be a particularly America thing: the space, the climate, a certain tolerance for mad variations on the nesting instinct by wilderness eccentrics, though the thread of  The Castle Builder was the story of a Norwegian psychiatric patient who  built a castle on a remote headland.

Think of Richard Dreyfuss, obsessively building the shape of Devil’s Tower in mud or mashed potato,  in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ostensibly from an alien inspiration but the picture of someone driven to create from an internal frustration.

Or the true-life structures of  Watts Towers, which the “barely literate” Italian immigrant construction worker Simon Rodia began building in a back lot in Los Angeles, also for no reason that he could understand: there were 17 of them by the end, in what in 1990 became a California Historical Landmark, made of steel rebar, coated and dotted with porcelain, tile, and glass.  Built up piece by piece, in a mosaic effect, perhaps with a passing glance at Antoni Gaudi.

Which is a long way of getting to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, as I did on a weekend this December, soon after another main attraction in the city, the Eastern State Penitentiary.  It’s very hard to capture the place in any single photograph, on a day with very flat light, but here’s two to start.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens Isiah Zagar

Magic Gardens:detail.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens Isaiah Zagar

Magic Gardens one wall view

From my own experience there is something calming in the construction of art built up piece-meal:  there’s a security and safety and care and pleasure in the small scale craft building to the bigger picture, less fear of the empty canvas, or a lack of inspiration.    They’re also suitable for group work.   Gaudi may have enlisted mental patients as artisans in early trials of his work, it was reported in 2011.  .

The Magic Gardens took shape in Philadelphia’s “South Street Corridor”, an area that came under the threat in the 1960s  from plans to plough a Crosstown Expressway  through the city centre.    Real estate prices plunged and artists moved in, and Julia and Isaiah Zagar opened the Eye’s Gallery in 1968.     Zagar had suffered a mental health breakdown and began using discarded materials to decorate the walls.

The work expanded outside, up the walls, on to surrounding buildings.  The word mosaic is used to describe it but it is not  a mosaic, in the stricter classical sense of using regular shaped tiles to create an image or pattern.  It’s more a free collage, an assemblage, of tile, glass and ceramic.    The Zagars had just returned from working with the Peace Corps in Latin America and those connections are clear.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens Isaiah Zagar

Latin American influence, with Oaxaca in Mexico particularly mentioned.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens

Ceramic detail