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Statue of Limitations

Not everyone loves J. Seward Johnson's sculptures. But in New Jersey, he's built a lovely setting for them.

By Dan Dupont
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page C02

Afew years ago, strange objects began appearing around Hamilton, N.J. Near its train station and alongside roads, huge, striking sculptures were installed in front of businesses and on public lands. Colorful spheres, a massive winged horseman, even a giant aluminum tooth started tongues wagging in town and on the train carrying commuters to nearby Trenton.

Keep following the artworks and they will lead you to the Grounds for Sculpture, the brainchild of arts patron and artist J. Seward Johnson Jr. The sprawling 35-acre park, which occupies what was once part of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds, is Johnson's monument to accessible art -- and outdoor whimsy.

J. Seward Johnson Jr., shown in 2002 amid his version of Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party." (Michael Mancuso - The Times of Trenton)

The whimsy starts with the roadside art that guides visitors to the park "like bread crumbs," says Johnson. "It creates an expectation. It was so drab before. People just can't believe they are heading in the right direction to a beautiful sculpture garden."

While some in town complained about the civic sculptures -- especially the tooth, which Johnson himself created -- that didn't stop the project. "The mayor is a lawyer," Johnson says with a chuckle. "He handled it beautifully."

At the park itself, three large buildings feature indoor exhibits, artist studios, a cafe and other amenities. But the hallmark is the intertwining of landscaping and art.

Johnson worked closely with sculptors and landscape artists to place each piece. The old fairgrounds land was utterly flat and strewn with rubble from torn-down buildings. The debris was plowed into hills and covered with topsoil and grass to give the park an undulating look and more variety. Thousands of flowering bushes and trees, many of them rare specimens, were planted; berms and waterways, including a lotus pond, were built.

"We tried to design it to have sequential events happening to you," Johnson says. "The sculpture is positioned and hidden and secluded so you have one experience after another."

The effect is apparent even from the parking lot, where pieces of wildly different styles can be glimpsed in the distance. Visitors can meander off into the grounds or begin in one of the two 10,000-square-foot, glass-walled museum buildings that started out as State Fair exhibit halls. Alongside one is the water garden, a courtyard enclosed by a stucco wall where fountains and steam complement the sculptures. The works include Johnson's striking "King Lear," a nickel statue of the Shakespearean monarch, and Susan Crowder's "Footpath," a marble walkway over water on which visitors can move from one section of the courtyard to another.

Outside, paths take visitors into a world where art and nature collude and sometimes collide. There are pieces from some of the world's most famous sculptors -- George Segal, Sir Anthony Caro, Magdalena Abakanowicz -- and by more obscure artists. There are traditional statues and abstract works. There are colors and shapes and forms at every turn, in every clearing, and the sculptures aren't all on pedestals in clearly marked spaces. To see some of them -- indeed, to even know some are there -- you have to work.

Nowhere is Johnson's penchant for seclusion more apparent than in a sequence of pieces not far down one of the main paths. Amid a tangle of bushes sits a stone archway leading to a dark, narrow tunnel. The effect is intentionally foreboding -- there's even a sculpture of a gorilla nearly hidden among the bushes.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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