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Travel Logs July 2014

A Sculpture Garden Begs the Question: Are They for Real?

By Elayne Clift

As you wander around the plush 42-acres of Grounds for Sculpture, the brainchild of internationally renowned sculptor and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson, his whimsical figures big and small are so lifelike, visitors soon find themselves straining their eyes and coming close to answer the question: Are they for real?

A couple lounges on the ground studying. A family strolls with their children. Kids dance on the grass. Workers take a break to play Dominoes. A carpenter makes repairs. Two women sit on a bench engrossed in conversation.

As you wander around the plush 42-acres of Grounds for Sculpture, the brainchild of internationally renowned sculptor and philanthropist J. Seward Johnson, his whimsical figures big and small are so lifelike, visitors soon find themselves straining their eyes and coming close to answer the question: Are they for real?

Johnson, 84, conceived the sculpture gardens 30 years ago as a place to make contemporary sculpture accessible to large numbers of people from all backgrounds. He wanted to offer them the opportunity to develop, "step by step," a more intimate relationship with contemporary art while enjoying an informal setting in nature. So he purchased the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds in Hamilton, New Jersey, in 1989. Three years later the park opened to the public. This year its new Welcome Center opened just in time for a retrospective exhibit by its founder. "Seward Johnson: The Retrospective" is on view until September 21, 2014.

Visitors lucky enough to see Grounds for Sculpture before then will find a larger-than-life Marilyn Monroe in her famous billowing white dress. The iconic photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-day is transformed by Johnson into a 25-foot recreation. And in honor of the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a huge Abraham Lincoln talks to a contemporary man. But perhaps most impressive is the series, "Beyond the Frame" in which Johnson transforms the works of the great impressionist artists into life-size three-dimensional tableaux, allowing, as the sculptor says, "an intimacy with the paintings that the paintings don't allow."

Those visitors who miss the September deadline will not be disappointed. Grounds for Sculpture features more than 270 sculptures from 160 artists and the gardens reveal thousands of unique flower and tree specimens. No matter where your steps lead, extraordinary treats for the eye surprise and delight. There are also five indoor museum galleries with rotating exhibits, three dining venues, including the Zagat-rated Rat's Restaurant, a museum shop and strolling peacocks.

But the real treat remains the ever-changing works of art set in an evolving landscape that is both peaceful and exciting. It is a place that testifies to Seward Johnson's vision. He wanted, he says, to create a place that would "continue to fill people everywhere with the emotional sustenance derived from the powerful and restorative connection between art and nature."

Picasso would have understood this mission. He wanted people to be able to "wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life." But even Picasso one suspects, strolling the Grounds for Sculpture himself might well have needed to ask, "Are they for real?"

For more information and a calendar of events, visit www.groundsforsculpture.org.

 

Elayne Clift is a writer and journalist from Saxtons River, Vt. Her novel Hester's Daughters, based on The Scarlet Letter, was published in 2012. (www.elayneclift.com)

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