June 13, 2008

Art on a big scale, to transform a neighborhood

Isaiah Zagar works on his mural Friday

Sometimes, things just happen.

Last January, Gary Becker was in Washington for a meeting, and he took a side trip to see an old friend. The friend took Racine's mayor on a day and a half "art death walk" the mayor recalls with a laugh, all over Philadelphia. One of the last stops was Isaiah Zagar's Magic Garden. Telling the story of the Magic Garden could take all week; suffice it to say it's an incredible yarn about art triumphing over commerce, of protests honed during the Vietnam War era transforming part of a city and preventing its destruction by yet another expressway. (You can see pictures and read all about it HERE).

But what's important to Racine is this: "Within a few minutes of seeing the Magic Garden," says Becker, "I started thinking, 'This would be great in Racine.' "

More pictures of Racine's mural HERE.

And so, the wheels started turning that brought mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar to Racine this week, where he has been creating -- with the assistance of a host of local volunteers -- not one but two incredible mosaics on the sides of two buildings at the entrance to Uptown, in the 1300 block of Washington Avenue.

Becker was at the site Friday morning, watching the white-bearded Zagar -- his hands deep into a bucket of grout -- direct more than a dozen young people (including the mayor's daughter, Maggie, 16) as they created artwork where there had been none, out of broken pieces of tile, mirror, stones, shells, an egg plate, cups and other scrounged and donated "stuff."

And, indeed, what they were creating is art, with a capital A.

The murals are perhaps 12 feet tall and 75 feet long, a swirling mass of color and shapes. Look closely: there's a face! Wait, it's a mermaid. And over there's a fish. And ...

Almost all of it has been created by the adult and youth volunteers assembled by Kerry Turner, the project manager from Racine County Economic Development. RCEDC, the city and the Uptown Business Improvement District helped fund the $10,000 project, which with the Create Uptown Festival this weekend is aimed to kick off the Artists Relocation Program, which seeks to revitalize Uptown by helping artists buy neighborhood buildings in which they can work and live.

I say "almost" all of the mosaic was created here, because Becker recalled picking up Zagar at the airport and lifting his suitcase. "I said, 'Holy Cow, do you have bricks in here?' " No, it was just tile and pieces for what Zagar calls the "blobs" -- some of the key design elements in the murals. The face of the mermaid, for instance; some extra large eyes for another. Zagar created and then installed them on the blank wall, and then drew the rest of the design in chalk for his workers to follow.

Since Tuesday -- in between thunderstorms -- they have been sticking the broken mirror glass, tile and what not on the brick walls of a building owned by Linea Anthony, and on the Hoernel Key Shop building on the other side of the empty lot. "Sticking the mirror on is the simplest part to learn," Zagar said, after doing it for 40 years. Friday was for grouting, "the most difficult."

"Come over here and watch me," he instructed the volunteers, clearly a teacher as much as an artist. "Once you have put something on, the sponge has to go back and forth. I'm doing it with my eyes, not my heart. I'm filling in those cracks. The thing is to get a great deal of joy from finding those edges, getting it flat so there are no bumps. There is no spot you should feel is your work. You've got to dance around," he said, "If you're in one spot, you're not doing much."

I asked Zagar the "vision" question, wondering how it feels to have his design created by others. "There is no vision," he said. "What comes out, comes out. If I had a vision I would be stymied and I'd tell these people 'you can't work with me.' "

This isn't the first mosaic Zagar has made away from his Philadelphia homebase, which has scores of them. His wife, Julia (to whom he has been married for 45 years -- they were in the Peace Corps together in Peru) accompanied him to Racine, and joins him on about a dozen far-flung projects each year. (In January, they created a mural on a cinderblock changing facility by the beach in Maui. "That was nice," she said, reemphasizing "January" in case I missed it.) She was impressed by "the tremendous participation by the mayor," she said. "We've never gotten this anywhere else." She said Becker already has invited the couple back.

"You can see a whole neighborhood change with one of these murals," she said.

Friday night, the couple presented a screening, in the old M&I Bank Building on Washington, for city officials and volunteers, of a new documentary about their life. Called In a Dream, it was made by Jeremiah, one of their two sons, and already has won numerous "best director" and "best new talent" awards on the independent film circuit: in Austin at South by SouthWest, in Philadelphia and at Full Frame in North Carolina. The movie deals with the events that shaped the Zagars' life -- and everyone's -- breakdowns, an almost-divorce, raising children, as well as artistic issues.

"This is what I can get a thrill out of," said Zagar, 69, "manufacturing these large scale mosaics." And then he scooped out another handful of grout and energetically began spreading it between the tiles, smoothing the bumps and edges.

The free festival Saturday runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the municipal parking lot at the corner of Washington Avenue and 13th Street. It features music, clowns, food, projects for kids and, hopefully, completion of th murals. Our earlier schedule of Saturday's event is HERE.


  1. In one way this is a nice event. on the other hand with the shooting in West 6th st, to include shots fired down Jones st I understand perhaps the $6,000= could be spend stopping what is looking like a summer of blood.
    Then too one would think as nice as this man is that the $6,000 ($5000 his fee $1000 to his "Museum" + expenses) could have been spent on LOCAL artists.
    Of course I will be told that this was Fed Grant money however that does come out of our pockets too, as well I will be told that new things should be tried, me I am thinking that the FIRST job of any city is public safety. Right now I do not think many folks in the hood think Racine is safe right now.

    Then too The Mayor nor the Staff at RACDC live in the inner-city to them (imho) the Inner-City just some place they drive through in the daylight with their car doors locked

  2. I work about 2 blocks away from this location and I think it is very nice and uplifting for the neighborhood. If people take time and money to invest in bringing things up to par then maybe a positive chain reaction can come about. I am proud of Mayor Becker in bringing this mural into existence. Plus it gives me something very BEAUTIFUL to look at when I am driving to and from work.

  3. Sounds like a disgruntled left out artists. But anyway, it is a nice addition and will add something to the dismal brick structures. WOW and WOW.

    Thanks Pete for the pictures, they are terrific.

  4. I think its great that the mayor has vision and hope for this neighborhood. The mural is really spectacular!!
    Its all about moving in another direction. A direction that is positive and uplifting.
    I live about 6 blocks from this wonderful creation and look forward to this revitalization project. You don't have to live in a neighborhood to want to make a change, so the remark about the mayor and staff not living in the inner-city is ridiculous.
    No, this project will not solve the problems of violence and I don't think the $6,000 would solve it either.
    If you want to see another great mural created and designed by local artists, then go to the bike path below the zoo beach. That one was created last year.
    Again, its about positive change and making Racine a great place to live.

  5. This mural is beautiful and it is destined to become a local landmark. It makes we want to drive through uptown just to see it.

  6. Keep your head down and doors looked, you might want to stay away from 11th st.

  7. TheTileNinja1/30/2011 6:48 PM

    I was floored to see this last night as I drove through this part of Racine. I am even more stymied to see that it was done for $6000. That's dirt cheap, for something of this size, beauty, and magnitude. I have to admit that I was a tad disappointed to see that it wasn't local talent, but maybe Racine has none that would do it more for art's sake and not command a higher price tag. Isaiah then seems like a perfect fit. This is a great addition to your city and you should be proud. $6000 doesn't stop bullets, Mr. Anonymous griper, and niether does art; but it sure takes our minds off the violence. Good show.