Over the weekend, I indulged in a two-day intensive workshop with Isaiah Zagar who, thanks to a recent film about him by his son and a CNN feature, is experiencing a new wave of popularity. Zagar, 70, has been encrusting the walls of Philadelphia’s South Street vicinity with broken mirror, ceramic tiles, crockery, beer bottles and sundry for the past 40 years. You can read more about him here.
The whole time, I kept thinking, what a racket he’s got: Here we are, 26 participants from all walks of life, paying $300 to spend a weekend with him, busting up mirror and tiles and working on his murals. Nevertheless, it was loads of fun just to hear him utter such pearls as “Working with color is wonderful for my spirit. Eat your heart out, Matisse.”
Isaiah, born Irwin (he says he changed his name while in Peru because it seemed the Peruvian thing to do), is a great storyteller. He told us of one of his seminal experiences: As a small child, his mother barricaded him in their kitchen booth and left him with a pile of crayons and a coloring book. She loved to clean, and went to work with her vacuum cleaner in the other room… for a long, long time. He discovered the crayon had a better feel when it left the porous newsprint of the coloring book (of course he didn’t ever color within the lines) and slipped onto the formica table, the refrigerator. He soon figured he could move the pile of phone books she used to barricade them and make steps up to the refrigerator, and then up to the ceiling, where he made his own Sistine Chapel in crayon.
When his mother returned to the kitchen and saw him up there, she screamed so loud it made him pass out. Next thing he knew, she was holding him to her chest and smothering him with kisses, having believed she’d killed him with her scream. So, young Irwin came to associate artistry with kisses.
Isaiah yelled at us a lot for not doing things his way, and attributed it to having learned to interact with people from his father — his father didn’t like to play with him, he said, but preferred to fix the toys young Irwin loved to break.
We kept telling ourselves how important it was that we were getting to work on a public art project, although I can’t deny it, a part of my truly desired to take something home that was precious and mine. I came seeking intellectual, emotional and spiritual fulfillment.
Once home, I decided that I achieved far more than I’d hoped for — Isaiah told us he has warehouses full of his artwork, the stuff doesn’t sell. He does the murals for free for anyone who’ll let him, within a half-mile radius. He calls himself a street artist, and he is, and for one weekend, we, too, got to be street artists. It’s much more liberating than winding up with a warehouse of artwork.