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There was “all sorts of funny stuff going on” in Gregory College House last weekend, Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar said. Students permanently transformed their place of residence and temporarily transformed themselves into figments of an artist’s imagination.

As a part of Penn’s Arts and the City Year, Gregory brought in Zagar, a local muralist, to work with residents to create a mosaic covering the Gregory Class of 1925 Greenhouse. Twenty students worked on the mural over the weekend and Zagar put in the finishing touches early this week.

Zagar, who is best known for his Magic Gardens on South Street, said the people who work with him need not be artistic — he takes care of the art. Zagar laid out most of the tiles in Gregory last week.

Inspired by a set of tiles featuring birds, fish and other animals, the finished mural is an explosion of colorful tiles, broken mirror and painted figures all set in red and yellow cement.

Under Zagar’s watchful eye the students served as “technicians,” filling in gaps with broken tile and mirror, then smoothing everything over with cement.

“You think that you are doing this but you’re not,” Zagar told his technicians as he looked over the progress. “You are a figment of my imagination.”

Students involved in the Gregory project first toured Zagar’s Magic Gardens over spring break and visited his studio last Friday for a quick training.

“It’s a lot more technical than it seems,” College freshman Victoria Fiengo said. “It looks really random, but there’s a method to the madness”

“I’m teaching them to be masons in an hour,” Zagar said. But “they don’t have to get their union cards because I’m a fabulously free mason.”

Zagar mixed the cement himself, adding color with red and yellow paint.

“This is extreme painting,” he said. “One bucket of paint I use in a day, Matisse used in his lifetime … We’re a big country, big mess, big women, oversized men.”

But the best part of building mosaics? College freshmen Jordan Kodner and Kathryn Volarich looked at Zagar and said in unison: “Him.”

Zagar’s personality, his quirks and his storytelling kept the students engaged. He told the students about two women who commissioned a mural in Utah. “Out of exuberance, I squeezed one of their butts. That was the end of that job.”

College freshman Catherine Tien said she signed up to help with the mural because she wanted to work with the artist. According to Tien, Zagar has artwork in mediums other than tile and cement, but “his studio was like his mosaics. There were a lot of random things and a lot of color.”

Gregory’s Arts and the City representative and graduate associate Maggie McDonald said she originally offered Zagar funds to mosaic a very small area, but he offered to decorate the entire Greenhouse and to provide the extra materials himself in order to involve more students.

The Provost’s office chose Arts and the City as the theme for the 2009-2010 academic year. The theme year and the Penn Reading Project are designed to overlap and complement each other.

A few students said they had never seen the Magic Gardens before they signed up to work on the mural, but many said they wanted to work on the project so they could leave a lasting impression in their current place of residence.

As he inspected the students’ work, Zagar said, “This is the most exotic mural in the world.” Everyone had better cement well, because “it’s got to look like it’s here 1,000 years. If not, 700 at least.”

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