Grounds For Sculpture: a garden of vignettes
by Mary Jasch
Grounds for Sculpture is a 35-acre play land of uncommon landscape and sculpture vignettes. It is a garden that invites you to step on the grass and peek behind bushes. In fact, should you not do so you’ll miss just about everything including Gloria Vanderbilt’s latest dream box all grown up and pretty in a weeping forest.
This is an account of wonder for one visitor over two days to Grounds For Sculpture (GFS) and it still wasn’t enough time.
At the office, where real palm trees grow outdoors, pick up a sculpture guide and tree guide, although you will not follow them. As you head toward the Damascus Gate, pass a volcanic-looking three-tiered, wild rice paddy just before the marble portal rises from a desert landscape.
Twenty years ago J. Seward Johnson, Jr. bought 14 acres of flat Coastal Plain land in Hamilton, New Jersey. It was an industrial site, its barren lots covered in debris with soil so crummy that barely any weeds grew. Before that it was state fair grounds and, before that, a NASCAR race track.
But Johnson had a vision. First he founded the Johnson Atelier, a world-renowned foundry and sculpture school (now Sculpture Foundation Studios) that produced large scale sculpture; then he decided to make a sculpture park out back.
Landscape architect Brian Carey, New York, NY, won a competition to create a master plan and be the site’s designer. Over the years the property's growth demanded great flexibility within the original master plan, but the idea remained: to build an arboretum, park, and sculpture gallery as one.
“There was a lake that was basically a hole in the ground that had flooded, and this flat surface so we started pushing dirt around and started making landscape out of former landscape,” says Carey. “The idea was instead of going to a place where you saw 15 pieces at once, we tried to break it up enough so you can go from one experience to the next. We try to make a series of little, different landscape experiences that relate to the sculpture to be placed there. In some cases we designed the landscape around the sculptures; in some cases sculptures were put into places that were already done.”
A coterie of creative brawn batted ideas back and forth: Johnson, Carey, the old curator, and Bruce Daniels, director of grounds.
“They took the rubble on the ground – acres of rubble – and bulldozed it into little hills and covered them with soil and planted 6 to 7,000 trees and tens of thousands of rose bushes and other things all over and I don’t know how many species of grasses,” Johnson says.
To their naturalistic style they added formal details to end up with allees, architecture and architectonic elements, hard edges and columns.
They developed a landscape of fun and intrigue, of drama and adventure, of whimsy and discovery, all on 35 acres (7 more coming soon) with 272 sculptures. Each garden/sculpture portrait flows into another in an Asian garden, bamboo gardens, formal allees, rose gardens, grass gardens, crab apple orchard, Italianate and French gardens, English naturalistic gardens and some just plain fairy-tale gardens.
Downslope from Damascus Gate, Sagg Portal, a stainless steel sculpture, leads the way through weeping conifers to an arbor covered in wisteria and trumpet vine in front of the Museum, a rehabbed State Fair building. Frames were taken from the building to create the arbor, GFS’s logo. Two more arbors, covered in wisteria, trumpet vine and grape grace the park.
“I like those kinds of plants – the really thuggish ones that grow like crazy,” Carey says. "People think of them as bad plants because they’re unruly and grow like crazy and take over things. But you can make things with them very quickly. So we’d start out with just an armature and we’d have trees, arbors, houses, things really quickly.”
Soon an allee of October Glory Norway maple appears. Carey says its creation was “real serendipity, like a lot of things here.” The trees came from an abandoned nursery where they had grown close together in a big stand for longer than usual. Only the trees on the outside had any branches and they were all on one side.
“So we dug the allee basically as an allee and then took two outsides of this big block and put them together,” Carey explains. “It was one of these things we just found and went ‘Wow. We can really make something neat out of that!’ The allee turns bright red in the fall with a pink light that comes through it."
Japanese maples, found in another abandoned nursery, light up the courtyard between the Museum and Domestic Arts Buildings. They, too, had grown so close together they developed upright instead of spreading. “They are unusual because they were jammed together. We just dug up the whole block of them and put them back together again.”
A big stone wall at the end of the maple allee also arrived by serendipity. When a nearby stoneyard called to give GFS a pile of stone if they could get it fast, the coterie got a crane and trucks and moved the rocks out. Says Carey: “We had no intention of building a cliff until we got the raw materials for a cliff and then went to do it. The material said ‘Stack me up, I’m a cliff.’ So we did.”
On through the park to one scene after another – sculpture and landscape, inextricably intertwined: the clatter of large black steel against black bamboo; river birch bark and rusty-looking sculpture, showering shrub of weeping winter jasmine aside firecracker speckled 10 foot vase; 3.5 foot cast aluminum pumpkins under bright red crab apples. Every piece, every mini landscape joined.
The lake, as it turns out, was once the infield of the NASCAR track. It was also a gravel pit dug out for use on construction sites. Diggers hit a vein of water and the pit turned into a lake.
Soon, the warming hut with a green roof like no other. Un-intimidated, uninhibited.
“That was an experiment,” says Carey of the hut's roof garden. "The idea was to put in a big collection of plants and see which ones made it and which didn’t, to find out what would actually grow up there. Everything grew. It’s kind of like a weed lot in a way and in the summer it’s unruly like a bad haircut with all kinds of black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, bamboo, various things sticking out of it. Every once in a while we whack at it but it’s grown much, much better than I thought to the point that it’s kind of funny.”
But, please, step inside the warming hut for a real winter treat.
Enter a Grecian ruin, so exquisite that weddings occur here frequently. Once the racetrack’s grandstand that couldn’t get dug up, the cement pad is now called The Sculpture Pad, sporting formal garden “rooms” with sculptures. The group started with the existing cement platform, made limestone columns onsite and planted them with Boston ivy, installed art like a Grecian ruin, built secluded vistas and a moat with tropical water lilies, planted evergreen hedges around it, and put a tunnel in.
“It was a matter of trying to figure out what the place was,” says Carey. “I would say it’s probably finished now but you can’t ever be sure.”
But how does all this big art get here?
"It comes to the park on trucks and some is made onsite at the foundry," Daniels explains. "Some come in pieces and then are put together onsite. Others come in one piece. A road of heavily compacted gravel loops round the park and huge cranes, that live onsite, lift the sculptures and set them in place."
The theme carries into the grounds at Rat’s Restaurant inside the park. Fluffy brown hedges edging the parking lot turn out not to be hedges at all, but an unsuccessful, experimental, recycled plastic Department of Transportation sound barrier wall purchased, built bale-by-bale, and planted with wisteria, pink and white roses, autumn clematis, and winter jasmine. It’s a whole wildlife habitat.
The awesomeness really begins on the drive to GFS, where Sculptures Along the Way spikes excitement with its massive sculptures that appear on private, industrial and municipal properties.
“It (GFS) became a jewel in this deteriorating area so we had to have that like breadcrumbs bringing them to the Hansel and Gretel house to make them (visitors) feel, at night especially, that they haven’t made a wrong turn going into Trenton where they’ll feel nervous,” says Johnson. “We light them at night and it makes them more friendly, especially for people coming to Rat’s.”
So come take a path – or the garss – at GFS this winter – and again in summer. Says Johnson: “It stimulates you to discover and to go out and find your own path or let it find you.”
GFS sparks the imagination. Hmm… now what can I do with that 1920s rusty metal multi-pane window frame out in the bushes?
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published February 24, 2009