Stacey Holder: Garden Guide to Preservation Manager
An important part of the mission of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is to preserve the work of Isaiah Zagar. Exposure to weather elements and 165,000 visitors a year leaves the site vulnerable to damage, and that’s where PMG’s Preservation Team comes in. Their Preservation Team is lead by Preservation & Facilities Manager Stacey Holder, who took time to share about her role and experience working with the mosaics by Isaiah Zager in the Magic Garden and around Philadelphia.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens?
I moved to Philadelphia in 2010 to study painting at the Tyler School of Art. In the spring of 2011, I was hired at PMG as a "Garden Guide," giving tours and working the front desk. PMG was starting to experience a lot of growth at that time, and I became a Weekend Manager. Pretty quickly, we realized we needed to start focusing attention on the condition of the artwork. We established some inspection routines, began documenting the site every week, and started training with Isaiah. I did this part time for a couple of years, and in 2015, I became the full time Preservation & Facilities Manager. I am part of a management team that works very closely with one another to make sure PMG runs smoothly. I oversee all projects involving construction, repairs, and general site maintenance on the building. I also manage two full time Preservation Assistants, Yaara Ben-Dor and Andrew Perez, and together we focus on maintaining the artworks at PMG and as many public sites as possible. We also work with Isaiah on a regular basis in different capacities, whether that means training with him, cataloguing artworks in his studio, or interviewing him for the archives.
Could you walk us through a "week in the life" for your team's work at PMG?
I'll try to break down a week in Prez Life. First thing every Monday morning, two things happen: our managers and Executive Director meet to discuss the previous week and the upcoming week, and anything else that needs to be addressed, and our management team works very closely with one another. While that's happening, our Preservation Assistants do a routine site inspection to keep an eye on the artwork.
PMG is closed to the public on Tuesdays, so that is our time to shine! We reserve Tuesdays for larger projects and repairs, regarding both facilities and preservation. A lot of routine work happens here – cleaning, repairs, prevention, etc. It's nice to have a day where we have the whole site to ourselves.
Almost every Wednesday morning several of us visit Isaiah for a few hours in his studio in South Philly. His studio is filled with thousands of artworks by him, other artists, and tons of collaborations between him and other artists, in all sorts of different media. We pull out a box, or a stack, or a drawer full of pieces and go through them one by one, talking to Isaiah about the stories behind them. We document the interviews with a video camera and transcribe and archive the information for future use. It's been really exciting and inspiring to spend time with Isaiah in this way.
Thursday mornings, our Preservation Assistants do another site inspection. After each inspection, they send me a briefing email letting me know of any issues that stood out. Fridays are often a day to catch up on any unfinished business or projects from the week. Other than what I mentioned, every week is quite different depending on the time of year, the weather, and particular needs. Throughout the week, a number of things pop up. We're often working off site repairing old mosaics or working on new ones with Isaiah. This spring we will start doing routine maintenance of the public mosaics within a three block radius of PMG.
The PMG website mentions the "Zagar method of mosaicking." Can you tell us a bit about his method and how it compares to other methods?
Isaiah's method is very much based on chance and spontaneity. There's a sense of letting go in the method and watching the mosaic reveal itself. Many mosaic artists work in a way where they plan out an image and cut tiles very carefully to fit together to create an image, deciding on the colors and textures of the tiles. Isaiah has always used whatever materials he had access to. Most of the tiles and mirror he’s used were donated to him by people who were renovating kitchens and bathrooms, which leaves him with an array of material. Another key part of his mosaics are the blobs. He begins a large mosaic by hanging "blobs" on the wall. Blobs are made by pouring cement out onto a canvas on a flat surface, and while it is still wet, pressing tiles and objects into it. When it dries, it is a solid "blob" that can be installed on a wall. After the blobs are installed, he decides what the imagery will be and then paints a line drawing on the wall. In a way, the blob decides what the drawing will be. We then adhere mirror to the lines Isaiah painted and fill in the rest with random tiles. There are some specifics that Isaiah always mentions – how you hold your materials and tools, the way you stand while you work, etc. Once the tile is up, you grout everything and let the mosaic reveal itself!
You and the rest of the preservation team are in a unique position considering that the creator of PMG is still making work. What does your partnership with Isaiah Zagar look like, and how does it impact your work?
Our partnership with Isaiah has seen many ebbs and flows over the years. Isaiah isn't working as much as he used to. He turned 84 this month and has started slowing down in the last few years. He also struggles with depression and has gone in and out of making because of that. When I became the Preservation Manager in 2015, our team spent a lot of time training with Isaiah to get a real understanding of his technique. It took a long time for him to trust us to perform repairs and maintenance, but eventually he did. We still consult Isaiah when it comes to larger repairs or projects, or if we need him to remake hand drawn tiles, but we have had to have a lot of conversations with him about what we should do when he is no longer around to give us guidance. It's important to have these conversations now so that when he's no longer around we know how to move forward in repairs and maintenance to match his wishes and vision.
Isaiah has been instrumental in helping us pin down our best practices in regards to preservation and repairs of his work, and it's pretty unconventional. We've worked in tandem with him to understand how he would perform certain repairs, or how he might approach a larger project. We've recorded hours of footage of us discussing his preferences and wishes in regards to how he wants things to be done when he's no longer here to guide us. These conversations can be pretty uncomfortable, but the Zagars trust the organization to carry their legacy forward to the best of our ability. In areas where we've found that certain elements of Isaiah's work are really vulnerable, we will consult with him about potentially better options for longevity, i.e. using thinset instead of mastic to adhere tiles in outdoor settings. It is our job to bring his methods and techniques forward into the future in a way that doesn't impose on his work and techniques.
Isaiah also has many mosaic murals installed around Philadelphia. Is your team involved in the preservation of those works as well?
We have been strategizing ways to monitor and preserve as many of the public mosaics as possible. We are a small team, and our priority is the main site here at PMG. That being said, we have catalogued over 220 public mosaics in Philadelphia. Many of them are located within our immediate neighborhood, but there are mosaics all over the city, some out of state, and even outside of the US. The two main problems we run into are that we are only a team of three so most of our resources and time is spent working on the main site at PMG. The other problem is that we don't have permission to work on all properties with a mosaic on them. We have delivered letters to every known property to have a mosaic, asking for permission to maintain their mosaic, but only a handful of people have responded. This spring we will begin to perform routine inspections, cleaning, and repairs on designated public mosaics in our immediate neighborhood. Otherwise, people reach out to us to let us know if they see a mosaic that shows problems.
As you look to the future of PMG and Isaiah's other work in Philadelphia, what do you hope to see?
We talk a lot about being a resource for other Art Environments. We've been very fortunate in our success, owing a lot of it to location. But we've also worked really hard to create a meaningful experience for our community and our visitors, which seems to go a long way. To us, our time here feels like the beginning of a long period of growth and expansion. The Zagars talk to us a lot about their vision of the future of PMG, and it's important to us that their vision and our vision is in alignment. One big thing that holds us back is lack of space, but we are in conversation with the Zagars about the legacy of their other mosaicked buildings and how PMG fits in with that. There's so much more to the Zagar story than the general public knows, which is really exciting for us. Isaiah is mostly known for his mosaics, but there are many other pieces of the puzzle that we're just starting to put together – with the Zagars help of course. The possibilities seem endless!
This interview with Stacey Holder was conducted by Annalise Flynn via email April 2023.