Until some family members moved to “The Garden State” a few years ago, we’d never had a reason to visit New Jersey, a state we knew best as the setting for a couple of our favorite series, “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Tough and gritty shows that were entertaining but a long way from the peaceful, idyllic image that “Garden State” should evoke. Wasn’t it the place where: New York City dumped its garbage, a skyline of industrial towers and chimneys belched fumes into the atmosphere, and the
trashy reality show “Real Housewives of New Jersey” was filmed? But we’ve had to change our uninformed opinion of the state as each time we visit, we get a chance to drive through some of New Jersey’s cities. We’ve seen scenery that lives up to its license plate motto with beautiful gardens and parks, rivers, forests, hills and mountains.
One of our favorite places during our visit to the state this time can be found at #80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton Township, New Jersey. In fact, right at the beginning of the lane leading into the Grounds for Sculpture, we were welcomed warmly by an enthusiastic, sign-waving group that gave us an inkling that we might not be visiting any old, staid and contemplative indoor/outdoor museum. We might actually have fun!
The 42-acre park sits on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds and opened to the public in 1992. It’s the brainchild of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., one of the heirs of the immense Johnson & Johnson medical products fortune. Johnson is a philanthropist and a painter-turned-sculptor whose bronze figures can be found in many American cities as well as throughout the world. The Grounds for Sculpture brings together many of his works as well as showcases compositions by other renowned American and international artists in an evolving collection of over 270 contemporary large-scale and life-size statues.
A walk through the grounds is an interactive experience with Mr. Johnson’s sculptures showing “ordinary people doing ordinary things.” We strolled around and through outdoor rooms separated by tall hedges and treed tunnels, enjoying the lush landscaping and variety of plants, flowers and trees as well as approaching each new area with a sense of anticipation for the next surprise – the next tableau. At one point during our walk we heard a woman singing and the sound of water running. Rounding the corner of the outdoor room and much to our amusement, we spied commonplace pieces of clothing hanging from pegs and a woman showering.
Interspersed throughout the park were familiar scenes straight out of well-known paintings from the Impressionist period.
But, we don’t want to forget the additional six indoor galleries with exhibitions like the painted figure inspired by Vermeer’s “Girl with the pearl earring.”
And an unexpected iconic scene that made us smile!
Perhaps the only sobering moment was at the beginning of our visit when we came upon Seward Johnson’s “Double Check,” a life-size bronze figure of a businessman, seated on a bench, reviewing a contract. Located near the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it was the only piece of art that survived intact.
A sign nearby explains the exhibit.
“Rescue workers in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 tragedy got their only smile of the day when a “victim” lifted from the rubble turned out to be a bronze sculpture by artist Seward Johnson. “Double Check” was set up among the wreckage, becoming a makeshift memorial, as flowers and heartbreaking remembrances soon covered the piece.
Deeply moved, Johnson reverently collected all the messages of love and pain, cast them in bronze, and welded them to the piece exactly as he had found them one month after the tragedy. Johnson’s reinvented work, “Makeshift Memorial” was ceremoniously installed on New Jersey’s Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, which overlooks lower Manhattan and the former site of the World Trade Center.”
Art can make you appreciate the world around you, make you think and hopefully, make you look at the world a little differently. (We also like art that makes us laugh occasionally but that’s just us.) We don’t know much about art but we know what we like. And our visit to J. Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculptures definitely got our thumbs up!
Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, all works are by J. Seward Johnson