Monday, October 27, 2014

Bicycle Magic

Title: The Sculpture Garden at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens
Year: 1994-2008
Material: Metal (likely aluminum), held in place by grout, alongside ceramic, glass, and recycled materials
Creator: Isaiah Zagar
Collection: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

To borrow the words of author James E. Starrs, “Melancholy is incompatible with bicycling.” I couldn't agree more. For nearly a decade, I have navigated the mean streets of Philadelphia by bicycle. Granted, I've had a few collisions with slick trolley tracks, flat tires, and one stolen wheel, but I wouldn't want to get around any other way. Not only is it environmentally friendly and cost-effective, cycling awakens my mind, gets my blood pumping, and the keeps my spirits high. Bicycling is my therapy.

Visiting Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (PMG) this week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with museum staff and the artist, Isaiah Zagar. For Zagar, the creation of the mosaicked wonderland was 12 year act of therapeutic artistry. One object included throughout Zagar’s work that particularly resonates with me is the bicycle wheel.

The wheels in Zagar’s work at PMG are composed of a round aluminum rim, a series of wire tension spokes, a metal hub at the center. Some perch like gargoyles along the tops of the sculpture garden, while others are integrated into the walls, like windows. The wheel’s strong circular form stands in contrast to the geometric shapes that encompass most of the other mosaic tiles, and the natural shapes of the bottles and ceramic folk art. Wheels are also represented in two dimensional forms, painted onto tiles, and included in series of Zagar’s drawings currently on display.  In addition to providing visual interest, wheels often symbolize a cycle or repetition, as well as health and strength. Perhaps they represent Zagar’s own healing, or the revitalization of the neighborhood. Like most materials in the space, each bicycle wheel is grouted into place. While individual objects, they are pieces of a larger, magnificent structure.

Curiosity Wheel
As a frequent PMG visitor, I have admired the bicycle wheels, but I never knew where they came from, or why they were used.  Since my last visit, PMG has installed a “Cabinet of Curiosities” in its center gallery, which through a variety of objects, images and reading materials invites visitors to learn more about PMG, Zagar, and the mosaic process. A small red wheel immediately caught my eye. As the attached text label notes, Isaiah incorporates bicycle wheels into his work because they create a strong, circular form, without obstructing light. What’s more, these wheels were donated to Zagar by Via Bicycle, a shop just down the street.  The label is presented in a narrative museum voice. Rather than simply stating facts, the label poses a question, “What other recycled materials do you see in the space?” which encourages visitors to be actively explore, rather than just accumulate facts.

It’s true, I thought, as I wandered throughout the sculpture garden on this particularly dreary afternoon, the wheels above me formed little windows into the sky, and the lower ones were portals from which to peer into the cavernous space. How appropriate, I thought, that the wheels were acquired through a neighboring business; the sculpture garden was an effort to beautify and revitalize the neighborhood, and this is great example of how the community has contributed to this vision.

In addition to the owners of Via, who may see themselves reflected in Zagar’s work, the wheels might also be important to cyclists, advocates of recycling and creative reuse, those interested in community revitalization, and artists and patrons of visionary art spaces. As a familiar object that has been transformed into art, I would assume that most of PMG’s general audiences appreciate the wheels. 

A glimpse of The Heidelberg Project
To better understand Zagar’s use of wheels, one could explore visionary art environments, folk art, mosaics and murals. One visionary art environment that I was fortunate to visit a few years ago was The Heidelberg Project in Detroit, Michigan. One could also trace the history of wheels back to the Bronze Age , or explore wheel symbology found in religions such as Buddhism.

While it is unlikely that the bicycle wheels stir up much controversy, individuals who are offended by Zagar’s visual and textual depictions of nudity may likely be disinterested in his body of work. It’s possible that other individuals might simply find PMG to be too visually overwhelming. Going further, it is plausible that someone could pass by the museum and mistake it as a junk yard, or the home of a hoarder.  From this point of view, the reaction might be, ‘What an eyesore. This wacko can’t even let go of old bicycle wheels and broken ceramics!’

To further engage visitors, I would partner with Philly Bike Tours create a bike tour that explores Zagar’s murals throughout the city.  Along the way, the tour would also visit The Resource Exchange, a local organization that promotes recycling and creative reuse, and Neighborhood BikeWorks, an organization that teaches and promotes bicycle building, repair and safety.

This was a particularly memorable visit to PMG.  At the helm of my bicycle riding away in the rain, I was reminded of how bicycle wheels, whether for art or transport, make me happy.

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