Julia Zagar on South Street

Total sensory overload.

That’s one thing Julia Zagar’s Eyes Gallery shares with her husband Isaiah’s famed, mosaic-covered Magic Gardens. With three floors of items around the world stacked floor to ceiling, her store is a riot of colors, textures and designs. It’s as much spectacle as it is shopping experience. And though Zagar laughs at the “overload” suggestion, she doesn’t disagree.

“I think we’re in a certain amount of sensory deprivation,” she says. “I mean, how much Ikea can you take? People get a little tired of that, so we wham ‘em with this sensory impact.”

Of course, another trait the Zagars’ pursuits share is that they’ve both become South Street institutions. The Magic Gardens — which transformed a vacant lot into a folk-art wonderland — has become a tourist attraction and an artistic hub, but Eyes Gallery predates it by a couple of decades. The store has remained open in its original location at Fourth and South for nearly 50 years, since right after the Zagars moved to Philly in the late ‘60s after spending three years with the Peace Corps in Peru. (Isaiah didn’t start work on the Gardens until 1994.)

That the fame of Isaiah’s project somewhat eclipses his wife’s is indicative of their relationship as a couple, and as fellow artists. “I much more enjoy working behind the scenes,” Julia says with a shrug. “Isaiah loves to be out in front.”

Those roles will be reversed, however, with the opening of the new exhibition “Dear Julia” at the Magic Gardens this Friday. The show, which will run through June, features decades of work by Julia, along with portraits of and dedications to her by Isaiah, often in collaboration with fellow artists and craftspeople from their wide-ranging travels.

Proceeds from the exhibition will help fund the launch of the new Julia Zagar Residency Program for Women Artists, which will bring female artists to Philadelphia to both learn from the city’s artistic community and teach their own processes and styles.

It’s this aspect that most excites Julia, and helped her overcome her hesitance to be in the spotlight for a change.

“It’s a very nice tribute to me,” she says, somewhat abashedly. “But I agreed to this show to raise enough money to bring a woman craftsperson to the Magic Gardens to learn and to give. Even though we might get a woman president, women need as many pushes as they can get and I would like to take part in that in my way.”

Julia and Isaiah Zagar at the Magic Gardens
Julia and Isaiah Zagar at the Magic Gardens Credit: Facebook / Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens

Art has always been a part of Julia Zagar’s life. Her father was head of advertising for Walt Disney and later for RKO Pictures. Julia was born the night “Pinocchio” opened in her native New York City, meaning that “I didn’t see my father, but I got a lot of Pinocchio dolls.”

Her love of Latin American folk art began in the famously multi-ethnic metropolis. “Walking around the streets of New York,” she recalls, “you see little pieces of pre-Columbian weavings in the galleries on Madison Avenue. Then taking courses in art history I always loved the fabrics and sculpture of South America.”

That passion was amplified when she and her new husband, Brooklyn-born Isaiah, joined the Peace Corps for a three-year stint in Peru. She forged close relationships with artists in Latin America and began to garner a collection that would continue to grow in subsequent decades — so much so that she soon realized she wouldn’t be able to keep it all herself.

“You end up with so much that you have to sell it.” She shrugs again. “So I had to learn how to be a business person. It was through the love of folk art that I got into business, not the other way around.”

A tiny segment of the 'sensory overload' in the Eyes Gallery
A tiny segment of the ‘sensory overload' in the Eyes Gallery Credit: Facebook / Julia Zagar

Unsure where to plant themselves at the conclusion of their Peace Corps service, the Zagars chose Philadelphia based on family ties — Isaiah’s sisters lived in the city — and economics (it was cheap relative to the already-escalating cost of living in NYC). Besides, she says, “Philadelphia just offered us more: It offered us space and a certain openness that we couldn’t get in New York.”

It also offered a burgeoning art movement that would come to be known as the South Street Renaissance. The Zagars were key members of that group, a bunch of hippies and artists who settled on the then-desolate strip and successfully fought it being destroyed to make way for the planned Crosstown Expressway.

“We were a creative force in Philadelphia that I think it was time for,” Julia says. “We brought about changes. There was another side of Philadelphia that began to emerge with the young people of the time. And that’s being remembered now because we’re all old people of this time.”

From her perch at Eyes Gallery, Zagar has watched the street evolve — alternately for better and for worse — through nearly five decades. She was there when the “little Bohemia” grew into a hippie magnet, then later into a punk hangout and finally into the gentrified thoroughfare it is today. The Zagars have survived it all. Despite threats to the Magic Gardens from its original “bad, moustache-twirling landlord,” the mosaic wonderland was saved by the establishment of the nonprofit organization that oversees the site today. And while the Eyes Gallery has suffered an inevitable slowdown in business due to the economic downturn and competition from web commerce like Etsy, the store lives on thanks to a fiercely loyal clientele.

“I enjoy the community aspect here,” Zagar says. “Now it’s the millennials who are celebrating it, not the ex-hippies. It’s young people who want to be part of a creative spirit, and they’re seeing South Street and the Magic Gardens as part of that. It seems very positive.”

“Dear Julia” opens at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on Friday, April 29, with a reception from 6-9 PM and runs through Sunday, June 26. Eyes Gallery is open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fri.- Sat. and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday.