A view of a large staircase outside at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. The mosaicked staircase leads up and is flanked by flat tiled walls. At the top of the stairs the walls continue and become more sculptural, including bicycle wheels, bottles, and ceramic works stacked together.
A staircase in Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, featuring artist Isaiah Zagar's mosaics of glass, bicycle wheels, bottles, and ceramic works. (Courtesy Philadelphia's Magic Gardens)

Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens is arguably one of the city’s most colorful spaces. And with optimal weather, the sun’s reflection on thousands of pieces of glass and brilliantly colored tiles adds another visual dimension. 

Yet even with such optic appeal, blind and visually impaired visitors can just as fully experience the exhibit — and perhaps have a greater takeaway.

“I think I got more out of it through feeling [things],” said Wilhelmina Young, who was part of a small group of blind visitors given a recent afterhours guided tour. For this group, touching was not only allowed but strongly encouraged while staff and volunteers from Philly Touch Tours provided audio description.

Young has a congenital disease, and due to other complications only has vision in one eye which she describes as “looking through thick white gauze.” So she appreciates that institutions like the Magic Gardens are prioritizing accessibility and how guided touch tours help her fill in the gaps. “Even when I had low vision, I would have needed to touch which most places don’t allow. Or I would have had to lean in real close, which is also usually not allowed.”

The Magic Gardens is the work of Isaiah Zagar, who over the course of thirty years created a sprawling collection of plates, glasses, bike wheels, all in a mosaic overlay of broken ceramic tiles that winds around a gallery and museum on South Street between 10th and 11th.

An older man stands behind a younger man, holding his elbow as he reaches out to touch a wall in front of them. They are in a mosaicked space at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, and the wall is covered with objects like bottles, bicycle wheels, and pottery shards.
During a Philly Touch Tours expedition, Simon Bonenfant explores one of the Magic Gardens mosaic walls while father Ron looks on. (Lisa Bryant for Billy Penn)

The two-level outdoor space where walls, floors and ceilings also make up the art, is “like going inside Isaiah’s brain,” said Emily Smith, the museum’s executive director. Zagar began breaking and repurposing glass and tiles as a form of mental therapy, drawing inspiration from other artists of massive outdoor creations. He starts with pouring concrete over canvas, then adds the tiles and objects into the wet concrete. The pieces are then bolted into the wall once dried.

The 10-foot-high sculptural wall at the Magic Gardens is an elaborate display — an illustration of what Zagar in an interview said is his purpose: “to reconstruct tile.”   

Interspersed amid the array of bottles (there are over 6,000), bicycle wheels and even a toilet, are some of the artist’s favorite phrases such as “Art is the center of the real world.” There are several interpretations of Shiva, the four-armed Hindu god which Zagar said is a mirror of himself at work — moving with such speed and agility that gives an illusion of him having multiple arms.

A view of the mosaicked courtyard at Philadelphia's Magic Gardens. The walls and floor of the outdoor space are covered in colorful tiles. The wall to the left is three stories tall and is flat and mosaicked. The wall to the right is more sculptural, with bike wheels and bottles incorporated into the mosaics, and is about one story tall. The wall at the far end of the courtyard is about three stories tall, and is flat mosaics until the very top, where it's capped with a brick and bottle sculpture.
A view of the mosaicked courtyard at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on South Street.(Courtesy Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens)

Experiencing the familiar in a different way

In 2016, Magic Gardens staff approached Philly Touch Tours cofounder Trish Maunder about creating an accessibility training program specifically for their environment. 

“We understand how important creativity and expression is and everyone should have access to that,” said Smith, the museum director. 

Touch Tours has previously trained staff at the Philadelphia  Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Museum of the American Revolution. At the Magic Gardens, they worked with employees over the course of several months, sharing sensitivity tips such as how to take cues from a guest — or how to simply ask a guest for directions, rather than assuming the level of assistance they need. 

At one point, workers wore sleep shades in a simulated tour of the Gardens, “not so much to mimic blindness but to isolate their tactile sense,” said Katherine Allen, Touch Tours’ program director. Given the installations purposely uneven flooring, narrow passageways, and objects that sometimes jut out of nowhere, staff were also trained to create a tactile experience with safety in mind.  

After staff completed the training, Philly Touch Tours tested the results with members of its Vision Counsel, a group of blind consumers who provide critical feedback when the org assesses the accessibility of various institutions.

A trio of people stand in a Magic Gardens courtyard with a floor of patterned tiles and mosaicked walls. There is a found art-style chandelier hanging from a rafter above. One person is leading a guide dog, a golden lab, and two other people are holding guide canes.
During a Philly Touch Tours trip to the Magic Gardens, Ryan, Katie and Beth pause in front of a mosaic dimensional sculpture.

Magic Gardens staff say the training has been beneficial, in some unexpected ways.

“The thing I love most about Touch Tours,” said museum Education and Outreach Manager Olivia Edlund, “is that it allows me to experience the site in a different way. I get to touch parts of the installation I wouldn’t normally touch. The participants point things out to me that I haven’t noticed and we’re able to discover new things about the artwork together. “

Meanwhile, the tour participants were thrilled with the opportunity. Ryan Stevens, who is blind and has been on several Philly Touch Tours outings, was most impressed with the way the artist mixes a wide range of objects together. 

“I would be touching a bottle or the bottom of a vase then I would feel something different and found out it was a picture of a rabbit,” Stevens said. “This is not something I would seek out on my own, but this tour being accessible makes all the difference.”