I Love My Job: Magic Gardens Director Emily Smith on Running (and Preserving) a Prized Philly Destination

The leader wears many hats — from preservationist and activist to artist and world traveler — and says we shouldn't allow for the destruction of beautiful things.

Emily Smith at the Magic Gardens. | Photo by Cory J. Popp

Places matter, history matters and art matters, says Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens executive director Emily Smith. That’s why her role at the celebrated Philly space is varied; Smith serves as artist, world traveler, preservationist, activist, curator and ally. And every single one of these roles fits perfectly into her mission to protect art environments like the Magic Gardens and all that is beautiful, she says. Smith tells us how and exactly why she fights for what she fights for.

I grew up in… the suburbs of central New Jersey and went to university in New York City.

I moved to the Philly area in 2008 because… I had moved around a lot a few years prior and ended up in the woods of Upstate New York. I lived for a year with no television, internet, or phone. I decided I was too young to be a hermit and a room in a friend’s house in South Philly opened up. We were all broke and unemployed because of the recession, but it gave me a home and it was also closer to my grandmother, who was very ill at the time.

I decided to get my BFA because… there was no other way for me. I was never going to be anything but an artist or someone involved in the arts. I was always creative, even as a small child. I have a newspaper clipping from kindergarten with an interview of me, and I told them I was going to be an artist. I was a little bit of a misfit and had to take special classes that would allow me extra time to draw during my classes because I didn’t want to do anything but draw. So, art school was always what it was going to be.

I studied… Fine Arts. Painting, drawing and sculpture at the School of Visual Arts.

Art by Emily Smith. Courtesy photo.

Nowadays I paint… weird watercolor portraits, always. I had a small show at Paradigm Gallery recently of portraits of my friend Messapotamia LeFae, who is gender queer and fabulous. We were playing around with female stereotypes. Before that I did a pretty intense self-portrait series about my experience being violently assaulted. The physical and mental effects the attack had on me. Painting about it was very cathartic and healing.

Artists who have inspired me over the years… there are way too many! The heavy hitters are Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, Pierre Bonnard, Egon Schiele, Wangechi Mutu, Francesca Woodman and Barkley Hendricks. Maria Bello is my current art crush. I love her work so much! “Outsider” artists, folk artists, and art environment creators inspire me on a daily basis, and I try to visit as many art environments as humanly possible, which is a huge part of my job.

I’d describe my style as… a combination of Miss Frizzle with Albert Einstein’s hair… on a good day. My physical style is as much color and power-clashing as possible. I dye my hair gray, though I have to get back to the salon soon. My leadership style is easy-going but smart, team-orientated, and with a lot of laughter.

If you came to my home you’d notice… a lot of Mexican art, color, weird art from my friends, and strange collected objects. And I have a plant jungle in my kitchen. I have nothing in the fridge but plenty of delicious mescal — come over for a drink!

Working with Isaiah Zagar is… the greatest challenge and the most rewarding experience of my life. He’s not my boss and I’m not his; we have to work in partnership. Mentally, Isaiah lives in another world, so my job is to try to understand this really unique mind, the mind of someone who you will never meet again, but also take care of him and learn from each other and try to help each other grow. The three of us (Julia Zagar, Isaiah and I) are a team and we all really need each other at this point. It’s a weird, beautiful family. That relationship means a lot to me and is a huge part of my job.

Emily Smith and Isaiah Zagar. Courtesy photo.

Something most people don’t know about the Magic Gardens is… there are so many stories you can find here if you take the time to look. A lot of people think it’s just aesthetics. The space is truly international. It is full of folk art collaborative pieces from all over the world, particularly Mexico and South America. It references dozens of other art environments and artists as well as personal stories. I see the Gardens as Isaiah’s diary. There is something really incredible about an unfiltered mind.

The space is welcoming to all types of people and all those people are depicted in the space — the full spectrum. Everyone belongs here. We really want to foster deeper dialogues about each other, about mental health, about the possibility of creativity. Also, you can bring your dog in! Please do, actually. It makes our day!

My favorite corner of the Magic Gardens is… that’s really tricky. At night I like to sit under Warren Muller’s art installation under the huppa. I love working in our garden with the flowers, which we started ourselves a few years ago. I love the birds and squirrels that live with us. I love some of the new folk art we’ve been installing. I also love all the saucy, sexy tiles. We get a kick out of those.

Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Courtesy photo.

Our favorite days are… Tuesdays because we are closed to the public and we work on repairing, cleaning, and the care taking of the site. My dog (our office dog) who meant so much to all of us, was just six years old and diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and we only had a week before she passed away. Her last day was on a beautiful sunny Tuesday afternoon and we all stopped working for the day and laid with her in the Gardens, laughing and crying and saying goodbye. She was so happy and at peace. It’s my favorite memory spent out there; even though it was so sad, it was so gentle. It’s what the Gardens means to me.

We’re fighting to keep the Painted Bride intact because… places matter. History matters. Art matters. The Painted Bride’s façade can never be created again. A lot of people think “it’s just another mural” but this particular mural directly tells the stories of all the alternative artists and creatives that made Philadelphia the city it is today. These strange and special spaces make me want to continue to love and live in this city. We don’t need more multi-million dollar condos — we need places that honor our history and show the character of who Philadelphia really is.

Also, the mural is beautiful and exceptional. I don’t believe we should allow the destruction of beautiful things. We should fight to preserve them and it’s an honor to fight. We live in one of the most historic cities in the nation! Preservationists, conservationists, the historical commission, are some of the only resources we have as community members to say, “These spaces matter to us. Please let’s take care of them, not destroy them.” Our government and Mayor Kenney should be paying attention and now is the time for all of us to shape the Philadelphia we want to live in, not the Philadelphia that is being handed to us.

Emily Smith and Julia Zagar. Courtesy photo.

We keep the Magic Gardens in good shape with… a brilliant preservation team of three staff members. We have been trained by some of the finest conservators in the field and are working every single day to ensure the site will live on for generations. 100 percent of the donations that go to our preservation fund directly support these efforts, so small or large contributions are vital! It goes such a long way. We are now starting to work on the 220 public mosaics outside of the Magic Gardens site.

I wish I had more time to… make art and travel.

As executive director, my day to day… varies every day. Today, I am working on an airplane back from a two-week work trip to Mexico. I’m working nonstop on this historical designation in my spare time, and then in three days I fly out at 5 a.m. to Santa Fe for a folk art conference. A gentle day is sitting at my desk and being with my coworkers, but I’m usually deep in finances and strategy planning. I try to keep my head always on the big picture, not get too lost in details.

Emily Smith on a recent work trip to Mexico. Courtesy photo.

The hardest part about my job is… time! I work long days most days. I have to physically be around for most events and try to maintain a work-life balance. I’m pretty good at that for the most part, but some weeks it’s just impossible.

The strangest thing about my job is… literally, everything about my job is strange. I can’t think of a day that isn’t strange.

I’m currently reading… a book of short stories by Alice Munro called Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. I also have Leonora Carrington’s novel about her nervous breakdown, Down Below, in my book bag.

I travel for work… a lot! For really wonderful things. My last three trips were ten days in Wisconsin to be a keynote speaker with Isaiah about the preservation of art environments, then we spent the rest of the trip visiting incredible art environments in the area: Fred Smith’s Concrete Park, Mary Nohl’s house, The Forevertron by Dr. Evermore, The House on the Rock, Dickeyville Grotto. I took a trip to LA in the spring to visit Watts Towers, Salvation Mountain, The Mosaic House in Venice Beach, and Noah Purifoy’s desert installation.

Philadelphia’s art community… is nothing but opportunity! You can still make your mark here, and my experience has been nothing but love and support within the community.

Local artists I have my eye on include… Kay Healy, who’s my best friend, but I also adore her work and I keep buying stuff from her. Judith Schaechter blows my mind. Russell Craig just had a show at the Gardens and his work is smart and important. Zoe Strauss is a badass. Pam Lethbridge. The street art in Philly is fantastic and inspiring and there are too many artists doing great things out there in the public for us.

A social issue I care a lot about is… I mean, at this point, it feels like all of humanity is being threatened with every turn, so what is there not to care about? To pick a few: Women and queer voices in leadership. Women’s empowerment in general. Protecting and supporting our trans community members. Being the best ally I can be to my POC brothers and sisters. Immigration. I think the diversity of this country is absolutely what makes it so great, and we have so much more to go. There’s a lot to be worked on.

The best thing about my job is… working with my team, being immersed in art and culture in really unique, inspiring ways and making Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens the type of work environment I am so happy to come to every single day. I have a strange and interesting life and I am very, very grateful for it.