Washing Away the Dust of the Everyday: 20 Years at Grounds for Sculpture

By Susan Wallner

The Nine Muses by Carlos Dorrien, (c) 1990-97 The Sculpture Foundation. Photo by David W. Steele.

Grounds for Sculpture is an enchanted place. Forty-two beautifully landscaped acres invite discovery. Grand works of art inspire awe, and hidden sculptures delight visitors of all ages and backgrounds. This Hamilton, New Jersey sculpture park is also home to a renowned restaurant, Rats, and its buildings house changing exhibits and performances. It all started in the mid-1980s, when sculptor Seward Johnson surveyed a barren landscape outside of Trenton and declared his intention to create a park. In 1992, work began and now, more than 2,000 trees later, it is hard to imagine the verdant scene any other way.

Seward Johnson’s intention has always been to use art to distract people from their everyday lives, or, as Picasso put it, “to wash the dust of the everyday off of people’s souls.” Grounds for Sculpture is home to more than 270 works of art. Johnson himself has created some of the most popular, including his very first for the park, Dejeuner Déjà Vu, a three-dimensional recreation of the early French Impressionist Édouard Manet’s painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Johnson says he chose this painting – of a nude woman and her scantily clad friend having a picnic lunch with fully dressed men – because it was so famous.

Dejeuner Deja Vu by Seward Johnson, (c)1984 The Sculpture Foundation. Photo by David W. Steele.

“The whole thing was to give you an experience of standing in something you know well, and to confuse you a little bit…. You have the chicken and egg syndrome, because generally a painting is done of something solid, not something solid of a painting. So a little bit you’re wondering – am I in the original, and is that painting that I’ve seen posters of the copy? And so it made for a wonderful mental puzzle, to challenge people, to distract them actually.”

Seward Johnson began his career as a sculptor in 1968. After being fired from his family’s company, Johnson & Johnson, he had painted a bit but it wasn’t until he took a sculpture class that he found his calling. Some of his earliest work had a social mission: to get people back out into public parks. In the 1970s, people were beginning to avoid public places because of the fear of crime and stay home watching television. As an antidote, Johnson made realistic sculptures of people who sat on park benches: a man reading a newspaper; a woman going through her purse. They sold out. Johnson describes these early sculptures as “people that I put into parks as sort of presences to make them less empty, to make people feel more secure. They were like decoys to bring ducks into the park.”


Seward Johnson at Grounds for Sculpture on State of the Arts, 2002.

Johnson continues to make realistic sculptures with a touch of whimsy. However, the large three-dimensional work he is now planning for Grounds for Sculpture will not be colorful or amusing. He hopes to recreate a photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 of his sculpture Double Check. Located near the North Tower, it was the only work of art to survive the attack. He will make the piece using the same figure, surrounding it with (a sculptural form of) debris and dust. Johnson hopes that as people “step” into the photograph, they will experience some of the intense emotions he had when he first saw Double Check at Ground Zero.

Grounds for Sculpture is open year-round Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. Through August, there are extended hours on Fridays and Saturdays until 10 pm, with half-price admission after 6 pm. The park is open on Labor Day.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 pm.

Related: Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Opens Indoor Area