If ever there were a playground for adults, it would be Grounds For Sculpture, the 35-acre sculpture park founded in 1992 by J. Seward Johnson on the former grounds of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds. In addition to more than 250 works of contemporary sculpture in various styles, there is an abundance of natural beauty, with trails winding their way through wonderful trees and flora, ponds and streams, as well as numerous species of birds that have made Grounds For Sculpture their habitat.
When New Jersey native and filmmaker Chris Campbell first discovered Grounds For Sculpture, it was love at first sight, and he decided the rest of the country and even the world should know about this singular place. The result is Campbell’s new documentary, “Voices of Sculpture,” which will be screened on Sunday, June 12, at 7 p.m. as part of the New Jersey International Film Festival, which runs Friday, June 3, through Sunday, June 19, on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Also screening with “Voices of Sculpture” will be the short animated film “Triboluminescence” and “Atomic Mom,” a lengthier documentary about two women whose lives were directly impacted by the development of the atom bomb.
Over the course of several weeks in June, the New Jersey International Film Festival will screen independent features, animation, experimental and short subjects, and new international films, a total of 33 film screenings and workshops. Several have regional connections, including John Langan’s “Bowling Balls,” (showing Saturday, June 4), a short comedy about two students from Bayonne who attempt to steal an unpublished short story by J.D. Salinger from the Princeton University Library.
New Jersey native Ariel Frankel’s quirky black comedy “Pluto” will be shown Sunday, June 5, along with the Philadelphia-based documentary, “Eatala: A Life in Klezmer,” a portrait of Elaine Hoffman Watts, a renowned klezmer percussionist. From Switzerland, there’s a buzz around “The Sandman,” Peter Luisi’s playfully surreal romantic feature comedy, screening Friday, June 3.
Utilizing crisp, high-definition photography, “Voices of Sculpture” allows viewers to walk right up to the art works and see how they change, depending on one’s shifting perception. Campbell, 58, who is one of the executive producers as well as the director, will be on hand at the screening. So will executive producer David W. Steele, a Princeton resident with affection for and long ties to Grounds For Sculpture.
Currently an employee of the Atlantic Foundation in Hamilton, Steele says that over the past 20 years, he has worked on a number of projects under the direction of Seward Johnson. “I feel very fortunate to have been chosen to spearhead this exciting project,” Steele writes in an E-mail. “Chris Campbell and his production company (Palace Production Center of Norwalk, CT) were chosen to see this project through because of their past successful experience in cultural programming.”
“My company is familiar with arts institutions, and we’re always trying to help them promote themselves,” says Campbell in a phone interview. “Grounds For Sculpture is a special place and unique as far as I can tell, really remarkable. One of the things I wanted to do was just to make people aware of Grounds For Sculpture. The first time I was on my way here, I was driving through this industrial park, and I thought I was lost. Then, all of sudden, there it was.”
“Voices of Sculpture” has been in the works for about two and a half years, and is still being tweaked, Campbell says. One of the primary reasons for the lengthy production schedule was Campbell’s desire to show Grounds For Sculpture in all four seasons. As any habitue of the sculpture park knows, it’s designed to evolve and delight year-round.
“Part and parcel of the process was to track certain locations throughout the four seasons,” Campbell says. “You’ll see montages go through the seasons, matched shots in different seasons, which took a long time. We also wanted to shoot different events to get different aspects to the story. For example, if you want kids in a scene, we had to come when the kids were there.
“I’d say we shot for 55 days, a day here and a day there, with the longest time being seven days at the height of the summer solstice, so we could get the light just right,” he continues. “We went through two brutal winters. There’s well over 35 hours of material, maybe more.”
The balance between the sculptural works and the natural setting was something that immediately struck Campbell and, in fact, partially inspired him to title the film “Voices of Sculpture.”
“I was trying to come up with the basic concept for the film, and I always try to get familiar with the material, so I spent some time here by myself, just shooting pictures and what-not,” Campbell says. “It was a rainy day, and I was driving around on one of those golf carts, hit a bump, and my cell phone fell out and fell into a stream, so I was completely cut off. I spent the rest of the day in the rain, really experiencing Grounds For Sculpture in its unfiltered state, because there was no one else in the park.
“That’s where the notion of ‘Voices of Sculpture’ came, because the pieces do have a voice,” he says. “Inherent to the experience is not just the artwork, but the environment the artwork (is situated in). The environment is sculpted as well. In addition, there are points of view only the sculptor would see. When a piece is on the ground, you only see it from the ground, but the sculptor making it saw it from above. So, that’s why (in certain scenes) we put the camera up in the air. That’s how the artist saw his work, and we wanted to bring the audience into the pieces of art as a total experience.”
Born in Camden, then raised in Haddon Heights and Verona, Campbell is passionate about anything having to do with New Jersey. His father was in the Marine Corps, then worked as an architect and engineer, and his mother was a homemaker who later went into real estate. Campbell has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in education from Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, as well as a doctorate in communications, computing, and information technology from Columbia University. He has taught at several universities including Fairfield University; Sacred Heart University, also in Fairfield; and various professional institutes.
Campbell says he first picked up a camera when his parents took him to see the Statue of Liberty. “I was looking through one of those binocular machines: my dad put a nickel in it, I looked through, and was astonished,” he says. “I guess I was about five, and it was the first time I had ever looked through a lens. From that moment on, I was hooked. I got my first camera when I was nine and made goofy films all the way through grammar and high school. At one point, I was an athlete, but I got hurt, so I wound up taking films of sporting events. I thought of doing other things with my life, but every time I left the arts I sort of got pushed back in.”
Over the last 25 years, Campbell has produced work in broadcast and corporate media, as well as children’s entertainment. He also founded Palace Production Center, located in the historic Palace Theater in SoNo (South Norwalk), CT. Palace Production Center owns and operates Palace Digital Studios and Praxis Media, Inc., and also has offices in the Tribeca Film Center in Manhattan. Campbell is also a managing partner in Rabbit Ears Entertainment, LLC, an award-winning children’s and family publishing company, and Docere Palace Studios, a non-fiction television production company.
His wife, Deborah Weingrad, is vice president and editorial director at Palace Production Center. The couple has a son and daughter, both teenagers. Campbell says before he and Weingrad were married, she was head of public affairs and promotion at National Public Radio.
“Voices of Sculpture” has already been translated into French, Spanish, Italian and Chinese, and there will be versions in Hindi and Russian as well. Campbell hopes to market the film nationally and internationally.
“What is most impressive to me is the people who have made Grounds For Sculpture, whose work is on view there, and of course, Seward Johnson’s overall vision. He’s a remarkable guy to even think of it,” Campbell says. “But then there are also the people who go there. You hear languages from all over the world when you walk through Grounds For Sculpture, for example. My film is called ‘Voices of Sculpture’ because there are so many voices that are acting, interacting, and creating things there.”
16th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival Summer 2011, Friday, June 3, through Sunday, June 19, screenings at Voorhees Hall, No. 105, near the corner of George and Hamilton streets, on the campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Sponsored in part by The Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center. Chris Campbell’s “Voices of Sculpture” will screen Sunday, June 12, 7 p.m. $10 general admission, $9 students and seniors. 732-932-8482 or www.njfilmfest.com.