"Forever Marilyn," as Johnson calls her, is one of the stars in the 42-acre sculpture park's special summer exhibit, "
The sprightly 84-year-old artist's eyes sparkle. His smile is as bright as the sun shining on Marilyn's golden mane. He clearly delights in having captured the shapely starlet's most iconic pose, with her dress billowing upward after catching a sudden blast from a sidewalk air vent.
In the heart of the park he waits and then calls out various parts of the legendary star's anatomy as a crane lifts the white veil from the statue. He adds, "This is fun. Let's do this again tomorrow and again the day after that."
It's certainly an inviting thought for anyone who visits the sculpture park at least once. Created in 1992, it's a year-round showcase for contemporary sculpture by notable artists including
No matter where you look, there's something to see. Only an hour and a half from the
Open year-round, Grounds for Sculpture is not a static, museum-style lineup of sculptors' latest works. It's an arboretum where trees and beautiful flowers shape natural and intimate outdoor display spaces. Every path leads to a new discovery. It's a quiet place to admire the art you encounter and rediscover nature's own beauty, including electric-blue peacocks who primp and parade between sculptures.
It's a place where little kids can run free and get close to imagination-grabbing sculptures like Johnson's "The Awakening," depicting a giant struggling to rise from the earth. Kids also can use a mallet to play a sculpture called "Seat of Sound." Green plaques tell visitors it's OK to touch the art with care and respect. Red ones indicate "hands off!" No climbing is permitted.
Johnson, who combines a Disney-like sense of showmanship with a
Besides the indoor and outdoor displays, there are art workshops for children and adults, musical events, theatrical performances and offbeat experiences like moonlight tours (
Another not-to-be-missed opportunity is dining at Rat's, where food becomes art. Why Rat's? The premiere restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture is named for a character in Johnson's favorite childhood story -- "The Wind in the Willows."
Ratty, known for his parties, was quite a bon vivant. Visit the restaurant on a pleasant summer day and land an outdoor table by the water and your views of a moored rowboat, arched footbridge and woodland will make you feel as if you've arrived at Ratty's riverside retreat. The experience is as delicious as the meal.
The completion of the new Welcome Center, including a state-of-the-art orientation theater, new museum shop, Van Gogh cafe and added gallery space, plus the retrospective of Johnson's work, make this a great time to discover Grounds for Sculpture for the first time or to plan a return trip.
Even if you're not an art fan, you'll find something to smile about. When you get there, think about Johnson, who poured his imagination, determination and heart into creating Grounds for Sculpture on abandoned land and buildings once used for the New Jersey State Fair.
Routinely, the sculpture park's collection includes 22 works by Johnson. But for the retrospective, which ends
Another Welcome Center focal point is Johnson's "Double Check: 9/11 Survivor" -- which had been in a park near
The bulk of Johnson's work, mostly in a trompe l'oeil style, is either monumental in scale ("Forever Marilyn") or life-size like the subjects in his "Beyond the Frame" series and "Celebrating the Familiar" series. Examples are planted all over the park, providing a light-hearted approach to art that enables ordinary visitors to have what Johnson calls "that visceral moment."
What is that? "It's that pivotal moment when viewers engage with a piece of artwork and transcend their own place in space and time to experience a heightened connection to their common humanity," he says.
You'll get it by ogling "Marilyn"; by debating what
He toys with famous paintings by his favorite Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters in his "Beyond the Frame" series. Johnson turns the paintings into open-air, three-dimensional scenes and invites you to mingle with the painting's original characters. An example? Johnson's "Were You Invited?" inspired by Renoir's "The Luncheon of the
The most fun of all are the encounters with the sculptor's life-size, life-like sculptures of ordinary people from his "Celebrating the Familiar" series.
"You've got to look twice to see who's real," says a visitor on her first trip to the park. She's right. Johnson is a master of the double-take. His works in bronze are so lifelike, you want to talk to them. By the time you leave, you'll feel as if they're your newest friends.
They're everywhere and anywhere, particularly where you least expect them. At first glance, I wrongly assumed a cluster of figures lined up at the main entrance of Grounds for Sculpture were protesters because some were holding placards. When I looked more closely and read their welcome signs, I realized they were "The Greeters," Johnson's very own, inimitable way of welcoming visitors to the park.
Other Johnson folks can be spotted doing ordinary things, like falling asleep while reading a book ("Best Seller"), playing with a Labrador retriever ("Yuck,
Your first trip to Grounds for Sculpture will not be your last. Its everlasting allure is its changing faces. The sculptures, exhibits and events are always changing. So are the seasons. So are you.
GROUNDS FOR SCULPTURE
-- What: 42-acre sculpture park presents "
-- When: Retrospective lasts through
-- How much:
-- Tip 1: If you're using a GPS, address should be
-- Tip 2: There's a lot of walking involved. Vehicles to transport persons with mobility issues are available, but make reservations by calling 609-586-0616.
-- Tip 3: It's a little pricey, but the dining experience at Rat's, the premiere restaurant on the grounds, is worth the expense. Other options include the
-- Tip 4: Pick up a Site Map for the entire park plus the separate Site Map for
-- Info: 609-586-0616, http://www.groundsforsculpture.org
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