Good news for fans of Eyes Gallery: the landmark South Street boutique is preparing to make a return. Nearly five months after her shop was badly damaged by the fire that gutted Jim’s Steaks next door, owner Julia Zagar is targeting a spring reopening.
Considered a Philadelphia cultural icon, the gallery had been operating at 402 South St. since 1968. Its new location is just down the block at 327 South St., Zagar told Billy Penn.
Set to open in March or April 2023, the new store will remain under the Eyes Gallery moniker in some way, Zagar said, though its exact name is not yet confirmed. Offerings will include work from her husband, famed mosaic muralist Isaiah Zagar, and other local artists, adding to the shop’s staple of Latin American folk art.
There’s been a lot of interest around a relaunch, according to Zagar.
“Everyone meets me in the street, meets me at Acme, meets me at the market, Whole Foods, you know, and says, ‘What are you doing, aren’t you going to open?’” she said.
Anyone longing for a taste of the store’s trademark handmade jewelry, ceramics, sculptures, and clothing will have an earlier opportunity to shop Eyes’ merchandise.
On the next two Saturdays, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17, Eyes Gallery is holding a holiday pop-up, featuring half-price goods that were saved from damage in the fire. Doors will be open 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. both Saturdays at 1006 Watkins St., Isaiah Zagar’s art studio.
“It’s like saying thank you to all of the people who have been worried about me, and worried about Eyes — these pop-ups will give them presents for Christmas, and then after that I hope to put up something that will be a very beautiful store experience,” Zagar said.
10% of pop-up proceeds will benefit Women International Leaders of Greater Philadelphia, and the rest will go towards Eyes Gallery and the purchase of new artworks and products for the store’s relaunch.
About 30% to 40% of inventory was lost in the fire, per Zagar, who said she has missed working with the material. “Now that I’m putting it all out it looks wonderful,” she said. “I forgot how wonderful it looked.”
‘Emblazoned in my head’
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, which originated due to an electrical wiring issue at Jim’s Steaks, fellow South Street business owners and loyal customers showed an outpouring of support for the two longtime Philly establishments.
The date of the catastrophe — July 29, 2022 — is “emblazoned in my head,” Zagar told Billy Penn.
It was 1968 when the Zagars passed through Philly to visit Isaiah’s sister, unsure how long they would stay. The couple had just left the Peace Corps after spending three years in the folklore capital of Puno, Peru, where they worked with indigenous artists to produce and market artisan-made goods.
The dolls and other folk art that the Zagars brought with them on their return to the states would become the first items for display and sale at Eyes, set up as a small storefront in the South Street home they bought for $10k.
She recalled how theater technicians, woodworkers, and other artists surveyed abandoned factories — left behind as businesses fled due to a proposed-but-never realized expressway — and repurposed those materials for their own projects. They also pitched in at Eyes Gallery to electrically wire and fix up the building. Julia and Isaiah Zagar, in turn, designed posters and promoted other art projects going on in the neighborhood.
“[The gallery] is a patchwork, a literal mosaic of all these people who were around at that time, who lent their services,” Zagar said in an August interview.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an interest in learning more about South and Central American cultures, Zagar said, but she remembered a disconnect she hoped to help mend through art and artist exchanges.
“There are wonderful things that happen in the arts that make connections with communities and cultures,” she said.
The gallery eventually expanded to include artwork and products from Indonesia, India, and other regions throughout the world.
In total, about $270k worth of products and artwork were ruined by smoke and by basement flooding. There was also extensive damage to the building itself, including a hole in the second-floor wall where the fire from Jim’s Steaks burst through.
Murals Isaiah Zagar designed on the building’s walls need to be restored, too. Thankfully, Philadelphia Magic Gardens — the nonprofit founded by Zagar himself -has a restoration team who will be able to help with that.
An ‘aura’ that connects cultures
Zagar said community support has been invaluable as she faces both the tangible and intangible losses inside a building that’s always been more than just a store. When sculptor Demetrio Aguilar looked at videos of the gallery’s fire from his home in the Mexican town of Ocotlán de Morelo, he was shocked and saddened.
Aguilar is one of the folk artists whose work Zagar and her husband Isaiah buy and bring back to exhibit and sell in Eyes Gallery during regular trips to Mexico.
As an indigenous Zapotec artist who makes ceramic and clay sculptures of people and mythical creatures, Aguilar believes the gallery’s support of artists has offered more than a simple economic exchange.
“For us, it’s very important, in fact, that we share what we do, and the gallery gives us an opportunity to express who we are, where we’re from, and where we’re going,” he told Billy Penn.
Luz María Salinas, an artist from Mexico City who specializes in popotillo painting, agreed. She first met the Zagars at a tianguis, a type of open marketplace in Mexico City, over 20 years ago. Isaiah Zagar was the first person to encourage her to begin to sign her name to her work — a practice she continues to do now, as she keeps creating popotillo paintings at 70 years old.
The Zagars invited her to visit Philadelphia in 2015, and exhibit her work at the Eyes Gallery. “I felt like an artist,” Salinas said about the experience.
Sara McCorriston, co-owner of 4th Street’s Paradigm Gallery, remembers visiting Eyes Gallery as a child growing up near Philly.
“It was one of my favorite places on South Street, I mean it still is one of my favorite places on South Street,” she recalled. “It’s a wonder going in there, there’s so much artwork by so many artists from all over.”
The mission of connecting Latin American and U.S. communities has come full circle in recent years, Zagar said. As Philadelphia’s Mexican community has grown, Zagar has seen more Spanish-speaking parents coming into the store to look for traditional toys, papel picado to string up at birthday parties, or embroidered kids’ clothes.
“They want their children to know about where they came from,” Zagar observed. The importance the gallery continues to have for many people is one of the reasons she is intent on reopening.
“Eyes Gallery formed an aura. And it was real,” Zagar said. “It is real.”