Monday, June 23, 2014

while strolling through the park one day

(Click on any of the photos for a larger view.)

We woke up to a beautiful late-June morning. The sun shone brightly. Birds were chirping. A slight breeze cooled the air to a deliciously comfortable level. What better way to take advantage of such terrific weather than to spend the day in Trenton, New Jersey — one-time proud honoree of the title "Fourth Most Dangerous City in America."

"One art, please."
Mrs. P and I drove north on US Route 1 and a mere fifty minutes later we arrived at our destination. At the end of a narrow stretch of crumbling blacktop that bisects a nondescript industrial park sits a quiet oasis of whimsical culture called Grounds for Sculpture. Founded in 1992 by artist Seward Johnson, the 42-acre facility boasts lazily winding paths, lush greenery and 270 large-scale contemporary sculptures, an overwhelming majority created by Mr. Johnson himself. Johnson is the great-grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, the multinational medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturer. Seward Johnson worked in the family business until he was fired by his Uncle Bob in 1962. Seward Johnson is also a first cousin to actor Michael Douglas, but his actual "claim to fame" is his art. He began sculpting in 1968 and his work has gained international praise. His medium of choice is cast bronze and he has created hundreds of figures and vignettes depicting people in everyday situations — a man digging in a garden, two bikini clad women sunbathing, a young girl signing a modest young man's cast, two elderly women chatting in the park and a variety of businessmen reading newspapers or biding time on a bench. One of his most recognizable pieces is entitled "Allow Me." the 6-foot, 10-inch, 460 pound, nattily-dressed figure is the epitome of chivalry, as it presents a gracious gentleman hailing a cab for an unseen person (perhaps the viewer), while he offers a protective umbrella. There are seven casts of "Allow Me," three in private collections and four on public display in choice cities across the country. The one in Philadelphia, that stands outside the entrance of the Prince Theater on Chestnut Street, was toppled and suffered severe damage in 2008 at the hands of overzealous celebrants rejoicing in the Phillies' World Series win. And you thought we just booed Santa Claus.

1. "Ain't nothing like the real thing, baby"       2. "FAKE!"
Grounds for Sculpture is currently hosting a retrospective of Johnson's career and the grounds are liberally peppered with beautiful examples of his work, including the somewhat controversial "Forever Marilyn." This 26-foot tall, 17-ton steel and aluminum tribute to the iconic scene in the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, in which the silver screen siren gets her skirt blown aloft by a passing subway (a scene that then-husband Joe DiMaggio despised), resided in Palm Springs, California for two years. When it was disassembled and moved to New Jersey for this exhibit, Palm Springs residents were outraged. Recently, a unauthorized copy was spotted face down in a landfill in China. An unfounded Internet rumor has the city council of Palm Springs negotiating for the forgery to take the place of the original. 

"We win!"
Several versions of the "Unconditional Surrender" series also grace the Jersey sculpture gardens. Created in various sizes, this one, a 26-foot tall Styrofoam version, is a three-dimensional recreation of the famous photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on VJ Day in 1945. Johnson was sued by the photographer for copyright infringement after a life-size cast bronze version was installed in Times Square for the event's 60th anniversary.

One of Johnson's earliest pieces, "The Awakening," is also on display in the remote "meadow" section. The 70-foot figure is actually five separate pieces strategically embedded in the ground to create the illusion of a prone giant working to free himself from the earth. The sculpture was on display in Washington, DC for 28 years and then briefly at National Harbor, Maryland before moving to Trenton.

"Get me out of Trenton!
I have a little confession to make. I dislike art museums and I really don't like to look at art. I know, I know — Philadelphia is home to one of  the country's largest and well-respected art museums (and then there's that whole Rocky thing that I will not elaborate upon). I'm sorry. With very few exceptions*, I just don't like to look at other people's art. And from the looks of the other Grounds for Sculpture visitors, I was not alone. There were little kids running around, darting in and out of hedges and swinging from tree trunks, expressing no interest in their surroundings. One young lady was lounging listlessly in the crook of the 17-foot extended arm of "The Awakening" giant. Several groups of elderly men and women wandered aimlessly along the paths, squinting to identify Marilyn Monroe's familiar, but massive, figure and reminiscing about "The Big War" when confronted by the mammoth sailor and nurse. I heard one girl point non-nonchalantly at the immense take on Grant Wood's "American Gothic," and say "Oh, yeah... the farm people." People just couldn't be bothered with enlightenment or culture or anything that isn't The Bachelor or Candy Crush. For most of the day's patrons, this was just a nice stroll on a nice day. But maybe a little culture rubbed off.

I know some did for me.

* Those exceptions are Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, George Segal (the artist, not the actor), Mark Ryden and, now, Seward Johnson.


  1. This looks like a fun place to visit!

    1. Except for the fact that it is in Trenton, it is fun.

  2. This is so fun! I love your sense of humor! I haven't been to Trenton in years, except by passing it on the highway! LOL!