Meet the Man Behind Trenton's 20-Foot Sculptures

Johnsons Forever Marilyn, part of the Icons Revisited series
Johnson's "Forever Marilyn," part of the Icons Revisited series | Matt Yu Yao
Kate Morgan

Just off route 295, behind the NJ Transit station in Hamilton, there’s a wonderland populated by giants.

Seward Johnson’s “Daydream”

Grounds for Sculpture is a 42-acre public park, founded in 1992 by Seward Johnson. Johnson, one of the world’s most well-known contemporary sculptors, wanted to create a place where visitors could spend an afternoon learning to appreciate and understand modern sculpture.

The outdoor permanent collection includes more than 270 sculptures by well-known and emerging artists and by Johnson himself. Eight indoor galleries host seasonal exhibitions.

It’s possible to spend a whole day lost in reverie as you wander the rambling arboretum, terraces, pergolas, courtyards, natural woodlands, ponds, and groves of bamboo. There are rare plants, and nearly-hidden works of art. The marriage of manmade and natural beauty on the grounds is an extension of Johnson’s work: most of his famous works are perfect replicas of people – both famous and anonymous – but some, including his Icons Revisited series, are more than 20 feet tall.

Culture Trip spoke to Seward Johnson, now 87, about his inspiration, his work, and his hope for the destination he created in Hamilton.

Johnson’s “God Bless American”

What initially inspired you to become an artist?

I think it was simply the best fit for me. I so much enjoy what I’m doing. Hearing when others find something in the sculptures that they respond to is the icing on the cake.

Why did you gravitate towards realistic sculptures?

The human form is seductive to us, because it is us. It is the easiest way to get someone’s attention in order to give a message of any kind.

You have created sculptures that resemble people from both past and present. Do you enjoy working with historical or modern figures more?

They are quite different. I enjoy putting myself into the head of the Impressionist painters of yesteryear and “finishing” all the other parts of the scene that you don’t see in the 2D painting. But I like starting fresh with my own observations of contemporary life, too. Modern problems are reflected in the pieces that show contemporary figures relating to one another.

Johnson’s “Sailing the Seine”

Your art has been featured in venues all over the world; do you have a favorite?

Grounds For Sculpture is truly a special and very magical place. I feel that it allows visitors to have what I call a “visceral moment” whereby they encounter art – and not just mine but many sculptors’ works – amid nature. It is a context that adds to the experience and I love seeing my pieces within the spectacular changes of the season there.

Out of all your sculptures, do you have any favorites?

I can’t say that I have favorites, but at Grounds For Sculpture I really love seeing If It Were Time – my ode to Monet – as it fits so beautifully into the setting. And my Copyright Violation piece – a sculpture of Monet painting his painting of my sculpture of his painting – well it’s just perfect there. The Daydream, after Manet, a group of dancers reflected in a pond in the meadow, also are a joy for me to see in the context of this landscape.

Which works have been the most challenging to create and do you regard any as being especially unusual or striking?

I do, generally, challenge myself from an engineering standpoint on a regular basis. Creating the giant 25-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe with her skirt billowing was terrifically difficult in terms of balance. I had to make the skirt out of aluminum so that she wouldn’t tip over!

Johnson’s “Forever Marilyn,” part of the Icons Revisited series

Are you currently working on any new projects?

I am working on a piece of Churchill painting at his easel for my “Icons Revisited” series. Also, I’ve recently been inspired by the painter Redon and his sense of the mystical so there are some sculptures in the works on that theme. There are already two of them newly installed at Grounds For Sculpture.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grounds for Sculpture, 80 Sculptor’s Way, Hamilton Township, NJ, USA +1 609 586 0616

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