The Mischievous Mr. Johnson
by Mary Jasch
Imagine walking through a lovely garden of a French restaurant. A path leads around side where you hear water splashing and a woman singing to a Carly Simon song. A sign says “Employee Shower.” A peek through the bushes reveals a woman showering. You hesitate; she doesn’t see you…. You soon realize she is a figment of a sculptor’s imagination.
That sculptor would be J. Seward Johnson Jr., entrepreneur, philanthropist, scamp and founder of Grounds for Sculpture, the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture, and Rats, the aforementioned onsite fairy-talesque restaurant – all in Hamilton, New Jersey.
Johnson opened Grounds for Sculpture (GFS) with his 3-D interpretation of Manet’s painting, Le dejeuner sur l’herbe, “because Manet shocked Paris with that and I thought I’d shock Princeton with it," he says. Dejeuner Déjà Vu, his life size sculpture of Manet’s painting, is two clothed men with a naked woman. “It makes people start to think. And that’s what I wanted to do in every part of the park.”
And he does. Johnson says GFS is about different experiences. Here, 272 pieces are dramatically placed on 35 acres. Many are hidden so the adventure is like an intuitive search, a treasure hunt. There is no right way to go through the park and everybody’s path is different. Spend the day to see this artful playground.
Like Dejeuner Déjà Vu, most of Johnson’s pieces at GFS are people in Impressionist paintings 3-D’d into painted bronze sculptures because 19th century Impressionists were the first people to really enjoy Nature, he says. “I want to encourage 21st century people to go out into Nature – we’re stuck with our computers and televisions – to find their own humanity in Nature.”
For instance, to find the park’s newest piece, Gloria Vanderbilt’s dream box called Heart’s Desire, one must first find The Forest of the Subconscious, a glade of weeping spruce and pine down a winding path.
Johnson digitally expanded Vanderbilt’s acrylic dream box containing dolls and an acrylic heart in the Johnson Atelier, where he also enlarged his sculpture of the sailor kissing the nurse on VJ Day, which is always in Times Square on VJ Day. But why enlarge it to 25 feet high? “You don’t have to bend over to look up her dress,” he chuckles.
In another secluded vignette, Johnson brought Monet’s Terrace at Sainte-Adresse to cast-bronze-and-aluminum life in If It Were Time. In Monet’s real painting, an older couple sits on chairs and a young couple stands near a fence by the English Channel. In real life at GFS, the scene takes place at ...well, a lake instead, and Johnson’s statue of Monet is hiding in the bushes painting Terrace at Sainte-Adresse using GFS scenery. Johnson calls the piece: Copyright Violation! “It’s one of these places where you go and you discover. Everything’s like that. Everything’s tucked away."
Perhaps magical memories prevail in Mr. Johnson just as fairy tales never die. “Rats is where Wind in the Willows meets Giverny,” he says. “Ratty, one of the characters, loved to entertain so I had him be the owner of Rats. All of that is to make you smile your way into your time off and to step by step make you forget and leave things behind.”
The hunt for adventure and the element of surprise bring pleasure to Johnson. So does the fact that his work is understood and appreciated by everyone – no art history required. “My work introduces the uninitiated,” he says. “The man on the street knows the human figure. It does not bar you as an uninitiated as museums do with abstract work. They frighten people.”
Not so with Johnson’s museum show, Beyond the Frame, many of which are at GFS, such as Were You Invited?, his interpretation of Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party.
“I do everything exactly as the original painter did. Then what was beyond the figure or beyond the frame is my territory. Way in the back (of his piece) are the uninvited – four of us sculptors drinking Renoir’s wine up. Three were having a show at the museum at the time I was doing my piece and I said, ‘Hey, you want to be in Renoir’s party here?’ It was lots of fun.” Art may imitate nature, but Johnson imitates art.
At one museum exhibit, “I took a group of blind people and then turned them loose in the Boating Party and told them to find me after asking them to feel my face,” he says.
The unexpected. Discovery. Humor. Drama. Mystique. Caring. And lots of fun. That’s what it’s all about for Johnson. One new toy at GFS is a 20-foot tower left over from the Atelier. He and cohorts attached a spiral staircase, buried it in bamboo in the Asian Garden and built a tunnel to it with a mirror inside. So if you walk through the tunnel at dusk or when the light hits it just right, get ready for a surprise. Soon they’ll build a teahouse in the tower, too.
“So when you climb up there no one can see you, but you can see all over the park,” says Johnson. “It’s an adult fun house. That’s some of the ways I’ve enhanced the artist’s original idea to dramatize it.”
More fun is on the way for Johnson including a 30-foot rocket ship on top of a small hill as a tribute to Leif Ericson with laser beams coming off the top.
Johnson’s connection to nature began as a kid driving his pony cart around his family home on 1000 acres. He started sculpting at 38. “I had been working with the family company, Johnson & Johnson (founded by his grandfather Robert Wood Johnson) and had a fight with my uncle and got fired. I was in product development.” He and his wife live in Hopewell, NJ, on a farm with sheep and deer.
“No one would represent me in the art world because I wasn’t abstract. I was doing hyper-realism – people on the street. None-the-less I started selling like mad and placing them in parks. My piece was the only piece that survived the World Trade Center – Double Check - so they built a park at Ground Zero for him. People relate to people and it speaks for the man on the street. Now they’re beginning to realize that and they’re becoming more acceptable.”
GFS has been public for two years now and Johnson is coming back on the board as an emeritus. “I’ll have the right to all information and the right to the board’s ear. I will help guide it and make sure there aren’t any wrong turns. I designed everything at Rats. I designed everything in the park and so I’m trying to keep that – there are other people who have done some beautiful things in the park,” he says particularly of Brian Carey landscape architect, Bruce Daniels director of grounds, and the old curator.
GFS is an amusing park, garden and art museum rolled into one. If you see a tiny opening in the bushes and you wonder if it’s a path to something wonderful, take it. And if a gentleman approaches and exclaims, “You call this art!?” you’ll know … he’s the Mischievous Mr. Johnson.
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published February 21, 2009