Never the same man twice

Philadelphia's Magic Gardens presents Ritual of Self: Isaiah Zagar’s Self-Portraits on Paper

5 minute read
Collage-style portrait Daily Practice #17 described in text below, incorporating paint, photo, threads & many small objects

If you live in Philadelphia, you’ve probably glimpsed Isaiah Zagar’s artistic effusion: the mosaics—comprising tile, colorful grout, text, and found objects—that sprawl across more than 200 public walls throughout the city. You may even have seen yourself in the scraps of mirror that wind through Zagar’s mosaics like whorls of cursive writing. But you’ve never seen the artist the way he sees himself.

In Ritual of Self: Isaiah Zagar’s Self-Portraits on Paper, currently on view at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, viewers gain insight into the man who creates those mosaics—a man who is, by turns, brooding, whimsical, obsessive, delighted, troubled, loving, and unceasingly experimental.

In these portraits, the artist is never the same man twice.

The Zagar origin story

Perhaps you know the Zagar origin story, deeply entwined with the cultural landscape of South Street’s east end. Isaiah and his wife, Julia, moved to the area in 1968 and opened a folk art store, Eye’s Gallery, later that year. At the time, the city planned to blitz South Street with a crosstown expressway that would link I-76 with I-95.

Residents and business owners fought the plan, and the Zagars joined their ultimately successful coalition. Buildings in the neighborhood and across the city became canvases for Zagar’s experiments in sculpture, mosaic, and assemblage.

At the same time, Zagar maintained a private, daily practice: a series of self-portraits on paper made between 1976 and 1993, more than 2,400 pieces in all. The exhibition includes 40 physical works along with dozens of others displayed through videos and projections. Each is dated and numbered—“Daily Practice #1, #2, #17”—adding up to a kind of visual diary, a map of the artist’s ever-shifting mind.

Wild variety

What’s most striking, given that these portraits have a single subject and uniform size—each about the dimensions of a dresser-top mirror—is their wild, restless variety.

A rounded, blotched, spattered, and scribbled orange, green, yellow, and blue painted self-portrait of Zagar.
Detail of Isaiah Zagar’s ‘Daily Practice #2.’ (Image courtesy of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.)

The series opens with a pencil sketch, “Daily Practice #1, with the scripted title, “Isaiah doing.” The artist’s expression is both introspective and impish; Zagar’s penciled margin notes evoke time, place, and tone: “Jack Wright playing his saxophone … Christine making rubber stamps, Melissa dog barking, the Moon just visible.” Like a diary page, this image seizes a fleeting moment with its fusion of external happenings and internal mood.

“Daily Practice #2” is utterly different: Zagar’s face is rendered in orange, yellow, and blue splashes, with a spatter-paint border and a spaghetti of fine lines over the image. “Daily Practice #3” is different, still: made of acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink, and a newspaper clipping, it is headlined “HE LIVES A PAINTED LIFE” and notes the birth date of Zagar’s younger son, "Jeremiah Hezekiah Zebulon, 7/17/81."

A birth announcement for the baby? Or perhaps for the father, emerging into a new and complicated role.

Diverse private visions

Like Zagar’s public works, these private visions incorporate objects, text, and folk-art symbols. He uses paint, colored pencil, collage, fabric appliqué, ceramic tile, buttons, sequins, stamped-tin milagros, photographs, wooden kitchen implements, and bits of scrawled, printed, and rubber-stamped text.

In some, he smiles wryly, his eyes beckoning the viewer to join in the play. In others, the expression is mournful, eyes narrowed or cast down, focused on an inner landscape. He plays with color—his beard, bright green; his ears, camellia-pink; the hair, a Barnum & Bailey riot of oranges and reds—and backgrounds, with some portraits framed in Matisse-like patterns while others pop against a muted ground of white or brown or gray.

Small ink sketch of Zagar’s bearded face, with colorful confetti-like rectangles around his head and shoulders.
Detail of Isaiah Zagar’s ‘Daily Practice #19.’ (Image courtesy of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.)

A few pieces wink toward the history of portraiture: “Daily Practice #28,” titled “formal portrait,” incorporates the anti-formal materials of embroidery and lace tatting; the artist, rendered in shades of green, wears a crocheted rosette where a lapel pin would be, making him look like prize-winning produce at a county fair.

Another evokes Van Gogh, though it’s an eyebrow, not part of an ear, that is missing from the image. In “Daily Portrait #21,” done in marker, the artist’s face is atomized into a buzz of dots and dashes, his features barely discernible. Another is Cubist, the eyes, mouth, and nose extracted, scrambled, and rearranged.

The moods range, too; the artist appears vulnerable or vulpine, smiling and sad. In one, he grins, gnome-like, in a ski cap. In “Daily Portrait #38,” colored-pencil tears streak down the face, and the hand-scrawled caption reads, “Cry Isaiah its allright.”

A tormented mind

Perhaps the most painful is “Daily Portrait #17,” which includes a stained tissue, a plastic vial with a hospital label, a razor blade, a syringe, snarls of thread, and several green-painted, J-shaped hooks. The artist’s eyes weep a penny, a marble, a silver blob.

Zagar has struggled throughout his life with mental illness, detailed in the 2008 documentary In a Dream, made by his son Jeremiah; this piece externalizes the tormented mind along with the institutional paraphernalia (that medicine vial, the red-painted syringe) that might or might not provide relief.

The masks we all wear

I felt especially drawn to “Daily Practice #19,” an exception to the large-as-life images. In this quiet pencil sketch, the artist’s head is no bigger than a golf ball, topped with a corona of painted snips of paper. The expression is a bit lost-in-space, but the bright confetti makes it playful, a manifestation of the artist’s creative impulses.

Some images resemble masks meant to distort, exaggerate, or obscure the face rather than reveal it. But these, like all the portraits in Ritual of Self, reveal in their own way a reminder of the masks all of us wear to navigate the world, a chronicle of the many selves we each contain.

At top: Isaiah Zagar’s Daily Practice #17. (Image courtesy of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.)

What, When, Where

Ritual of Self: Isaiah Zagar's Self-Portraits on Paper. Through May 12, 2024, at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South Street, Philadelphia. $12-$15. (215) 733-0390 or


The Magic Gardens is a mostly wheelchair-accessible venue, though some areas can be accessed only by stairs. Check their website for details.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation