Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Today I met Isaiah Zagar

I had been asked by my ceramics professor, Hirotsune Tashima, to help him install his commissioned ceramic sculpture at the newly constructed Phoenix Convention Center, formerly the Phoenix Civic Plaza. It is required, by the construction management firm, that all those working on the property attend an OSHA safety class. A fellow classmate, George, and I drove to Phoenix today to fulfill that requirement. We waited as the other class participants made their way from the airport to conference room number one in the construction management office on site. At around 2:45pm they arrived, two thin, kind-faced, older men in casual clothes accompanied by two slightly less casually dressed, energetic women of similar age. Brief introductions were made and the instructor commenced his duties. We took the opportunity at any lull or cell phone interruption in the instruction to ask each other questions, "What type of installation are you doing?" "Where are you from?" "Have you been here before?" As the OSHA representative continued his discourse on the finer points of porta-potty usage I began to realize that I needed to make contact with this unknown artist and find out who he was. I knew that this was a fleeting opportunity to connect with a fellow sufferer of the affliction of creativity. It has become increasingly important to me to savor any contact with other artists, especially those obviously older and more experienced than me. I seek not to steal some fame for having shaken a renowned hand, but to draw whatever benefit may come at the feet of a teacher. In these moments I am seeking my heroes. As the class drew to a close it was decided that Isaiah and his assistant would need to visit their installation site and possibly move materials in place in anticipation of tomorrow's chore of installing the prefabricated mosaic tiles. As we all walked to the curb and moved to say good bye, Isaiah asked that George and I accompany them, as they may need some assistance in moving one particular shipping crate into position. As we walked, George with Isiah's sister and wife, Isaiah's assistant with the site manager, and I with Isaiah on my left, he gently and affectionately took my left arm in his left hand and calmly wrapped his right arm around my back gripping my right arm. He drew me close explaining, in jest, that his assistant had lost some weight and, he suspected, some strength in recent months and that our help would be welcomed. I joked that my own girth can be attributed more to excess fat rather than strength, though I was honored to be of service. Isaiah then explained that this was his first true commission and that his work had been largely pro bono. He added that he was delighted to have been selected and had finished the mosaic in two months. While other artists hired at the same time for various projects had, as of yet, only submitted drawings, Isaiah had already completed his work and would have to wait more than a year to install it. He said that his hands just went to work. I agreed that it can be tedious and dangerous to sketch an idea before setting to the task of creating and that the subconscious needs to flow through the work without obstacles. He finished the thought saying, "the governor gets in the way" questioning the artist, "Will it work? Will others like it?". As his words confirmed mine, I recognized a kindred spirit in Isaiah. He asked me how long I had been working in ceramics. I gave an abbreviated explanation of how I had been away from art for ten years, how I started college but left to build a family and was only just returning in hopes of becoming a teacher. He asked how many children we have. He was surprised, as most are, when I told him 'six with the seventh on the way.' "Seventh on the way!?", he exclaimed, laughing and smiling, without a smattering of judgment. Isaiah had in his eyes a true joy, devoid of pretense and self-consciousness. The furrows on his face revealed the years of winces, tears, and smiles. His beard hung down, clean full and white, in honor of his thoughts and long life. His thin frame was strong and moved deliberately, yet unassumingly, along our route. I felt at home in his presence. We approached the site and he and his assistant walked ahead to assess the area and crated artwork while George, the ladies and I talked with the site manager about the various features of the construction in progress. After a few minutes, the gentlemen returned, having decided that the crate would have to be opened and the panels moved individually. They would need no assistance and would set to work immediately after changing into the proper attire as prescribed by OSHA regulations. We began the short trek back to the construction office. As we neared the point of departure, we exchanged pleasantries. Isaiah shook my hand firmly, again smiling genuinely and again exclaiming, "Six, and the seventh on the way!". As George and I made our way to the parking garage we remarked to each other repeatedly how good it was to have spent an albeit short time in such pleasant company. Upon my return home I began to research Isaiah Zagar to find that I had known of him previously. I had seen his work at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens on a television show some years ago. His work consists largely of broken tile and found object mosaics and constructions. Some of his mosaics cover entire buildings, mostly in Philadelphia. I was humbled by the things I learned about him as an artist and as an individual. I may not soon know the depth of what I received in meeting Isaiah and his family but a flood of gratitude overflows my heart.