News Column

New Jersey's Grounds for Sculpture celebrates founder Seward Johnson with restrospective that will stretch minds and open hearts

May 24, 2014

By Diane W. Stoneback, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

May 24--Sculptor Seward Johnson playfully raises his hands high, like a victorious prize fighter, dances with his wife and his 4-year-old-granddaughter and leads a champagne toast to his 25-foot-tall sculpture of Marilyn Monroe at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, N.J.

"Forever Marilyn," as Johnson calls her, is one of the stars in the 42-acre sculpture park's special summer exhibit, "Seward Johnson: The Retrospective." The larger-than-life statue and more than 250 other works by the founder of this amazing park, collected from around the world, have been added to the Grounds for Sculpture's already extensive collection of 270 sculptures.

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 Clement Meadmore, Anthony Caro, Beverly Pepper, George Segal and Isaac Witkin. The Meadow, just one of the garden's outdoor galleries, serves as a dramatic backdrop for the work of Michele Oka Doner, Nina Leavy, Bruce Lindsay, Linda Fleming and Bucks County'sSteve Tobin.

No matter where you look, there's something to see. Only an hour and a half from the Lehigh Valley, it can be the grounds for countless day trips. It attracts nearly 170,000 visitors a year.

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 Norman Rockwell-style focus on ordinary folks, has created his own wonderland to share with visitors of all ages. He encourages your brain to play and sends your thoughts soaring. But he also offers an escape. As the artist writes about the park in his new book, "Grounds for Sculpture: A Living Legacy," "it gives people the chance, as Picasso said, 'to wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life.'"

Besides the indoor and outdoor displays, there are art workshops for children and adults, musical events, theatrical performances and offbeat experiences like moonlight tours (June 10) and sing-alongs with Johnson (May 29).

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 Sept. 21, his sculpture is everywhere. One hundred "midnight snack" tray paintings -- actual trays painted during the artist's sleepless nights -- are displayed in one of the Welcome Center's new galleries.

Another Welcome Center focal point is Johnson's "Double Check: 9/11 Survivor" -- which had been in a park near Wall Street when the Twin Towers collapsed. Displayed with it is a second casting, re-creating the sculpture's appearance after it became a makeshift memorial adorned with flowers, notes and even a construction worker's hard hat.

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 Abraham Lincoln is telling a tourist in "Return Visit"; by feeling the drama of World War II's end with a look at "Unconditional Surrender," which recaptures the classic moment a sailor hugs a nurse, and by yourself to "God Bless America," Johnson's larger-than-life, reinterpretation of Grant Wood's "American Gothic." All Johnson giants, these key sculptures are in his "Icons Revisited" series. He explains, "They're shared, subconscious images and they're monumental in size because I wanted to make them as big as they feel inside us."

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 Boating Party." You'll find the crowd at tables near Rat's. Walk among them and you'll see Johnson also added himself to the party.

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, Go Fetch"), selling hot dogs ("Relish, too?"), washing windows ("Nice to See You"), jogging ("Shaping Up"), spinning a hula hoop ("Attic Treasure") and fishing ("A Day Off"). You can identify with them. You also can stand beside them or sit down with them. Have your picture taken with any of them and you've got the makings of new postings for your Facebook page or the first in a series of Christmas cards.

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.

Diane.Stoneback@mcall.com

610-820-6526

GROUNDS FOR SCULPTURE

-- What: 42-acre sculpture park presents "Seward Johnson: The Retrospective," recognizing the legacy of the noted philanthropist and sculptor who founded the park.

-- When: Retrospective lasts through Sept. 21. The sculpture park is open year-round,10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Through Labor Day, hours have been extended to 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

-- Where: 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, N.J.

-- How much: $15, ages 18-64; $12, seniors; $10, ages 6-17

-- Tip 1: If you're using a GPS, address should be 126 Sculptors Way, Hamilton, N.J.

-- 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 Van Gogh Cafe in the new Welcome Center, Peacock Cafe, The Gazebo (Memorial Day through Labor Day) or order a picnic basket to enjoy on the grounds (call 609-890-6015).

-- Tip 4: Pick up a Site Map for the entire park plus the separate Site Map for Seward Johnson's works or you'll be lost in no time!

-- Info: 609-586-0616, http://www.groundsforsculpture.org

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(c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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