Editor’s Note: Notices of the March 10 death of renowned area sculptor and Grounds For Sculpture Founder J. Seward Johnson Jr, 89, focused on his very public achievements and activities. Articles and stories also told how his Johnson Atelier attracted young artists who came to the Princeton-Trenton region to start their careers and find their lives. However, such reports only touch the surface, unlike the following personal testimony of a young woman who — thanks to Johnson’s own love of art and interest in artists — found her artistic path and a rich personal life:
by Leni Paquet-Morante
I came to New Jersey from Baltimore in 1983 to visit the Johnson Atelier for the first time and was met at the Trenton train station by the late Brooke Barrie, who was academic director at the time.
The atelier was halfway through its move from Princeton to its current location in Hamilton.
Just five months later I arrived to stay for a 16-month apprenticeship to investigate what I could do with sculpture. Like many other apprentices, I received a full tuition grant from the Johnson Foundation.
I was 21 years old, possibly the youngest artist there.
The Johnson Atelier consisted of an international group of artists from various stages in their careers. I set up an apartment at the nearby Hamilton Arms and threw myself into the program learning various foundry techniques.
Among the over 100 staff and apprentices there at the time was G. Frederick Morante. He’d been recruited to the atelier in 1977 by one of his San Diego State University college professors, Herk van Tongeren, who had become the Johnson Atelier director.
Like most staff and apprentices, we worked an eight-hour shift making atelier clients’ sculptures, and then continued until 11 p.m. on our own work.
It was an intense, creative atmosphere. And over my apprenticeship I made a series of about eight bronzes that I now understand to be three-dimensional landscape paintings.
Although we’d become familiar socially, Fred and I got to know each other mostly during a kiln-building workshop he taught nearly a year after my arrival.
We were married in 1989 in Hamilton’s town hall by Mayor Rafferty, with atelier friends Larry Steele and Gyuri Hollosy as witnesses.
Eventually we raised three children in Hamilton, with the Johnson Atelier and Grounds For Sculpture’s developments a consistent backdrop through family, school, and community activities.
One of our sons is now a second-generation atelier staff member. Two ex-atelier artists — local sculptor Rory Mahon and Canadian sculptor Lydia Hill Fife — are our children’s godparents.
Fred’s work over 20 years with the Johnson Atelier transferred in the early 2000s into a position at the Digital Atelier, where he still works. The atelier went through its own metamorphosis over the years, and it seems to have managed its economic challenges, redefining its work to match Mr. Johnson’s evolving artistic vision.
I’ve come to see the two enterprises as sister companies, independent of yet sustaining each other. In all, Fred’s seen the two develop together for more than 40 years, with many artists coming and going.
With Seward Johnson’s passing, Fred and I are reminded of how fortunate we have been through our long association with his enterprises as they developed over the years.
Our experience is not unique among the many artists we’ve come to know through the Johnson Atelier. We met and worked with famous artists, befriending some. We made art that we we’re proud of. We saw our friends take on challenging administrative roles. Many ex-atelierites started their own businesses with the skills they developed, some became educators. Fred became an excellent modeler and teacher, sharing knowledge and skill. I went back to school, worked, raised a family, volunteered in the schools, and started to paint again several years ago.
Mr. Johnson purchased sculpture from both of us over the years, and his Johnson Foundation provides us affordable studios in the Motor Exhibit Building at the Grounds For Sculpture. Fred’s “Relative” and “Nude Descending the Stare Case” sculptures are in the GFS permanent collection.
As he did with so many other “unknown” artists, Mr. Johnson’s often unanticipated support through jobs, grants, and purchases sustained our careers and artistic morale, pushing our artmaking and even family activities forward for years.
Once, Seward had purchased a small ceramic piece from me in the early ’90s. So I always invited him to see my new work. For one show, he responded that he was unable to attend, so I offered to bring the work to him, which he agreed to.
I put my newborn first child in the care of a friend and took a van load full of the larger work to his home, setting it all up on his huge conference table. With about seven of his associates there too, Seward quickly pointed out his favorite and said that he loved it and wanted it both bigger and in bronze for placement in his Key West home. I created a new piece in plaster, and it was cast at the atelier.
This experience illustrated how personally involved and invested Seward was in “his” artists.
If I put my mind to it — it has been many years after all — I can also recall Fred and me hiring apprentices as our babysitters from time to time; attending the weddings of friends who’d met at the atelier; witnessing wonderful shenanigans on and off atelier grounds; and going to parties at the groups’ homes.
Although raising our family refocused our energies for many years, the atelier experience has been the consistent background for our adult lives together. Fred and I grew up as the Johnson Atelier grew up — both built on the foundation that Seward Johnson so generously provided.
Putting his mouth where his vision was, so to speak, Seward Johnson directly supported our careers through those unanticipated commissions and purchases, pushing our artmaking and even family activities forward for years.
A memorial for Seward Johnson will be planned in the future and will be announced on www.groundsforsculpture.org.
John Conway, 82, on April 11. The Princeton University mathematician was best known for inventing the “Game of Life” but was considered a true genius by those familiar with his work in mathematical fields including group theory, number theory, algebra, geometric topology, theoretical physics, combinatorial game theory, and geometry.
His life was chronicled in “Genius at Play,” a 2015 biography by Siobhan Roberts that was featured in the September 16, 2015, issue of U.S. 1. In her prologue, she wrote of Conway:
“Conway’s is a jocund and playful egomania, sweetened by self-deprecating charm. Based at Princeton University, though having made his name and found fame at Cambridge, he claims never to have worked a day in his life. He purports instead to have piddled away reams and reams of time playing games. Yet he is the John von Neumann Distinguished Professor in Applied and Computational Mathematics. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, a particularly august club, the oldest scientific society in the world — and Conway likes to mention that when he was elected in 1981, he signed the big book of fellows at the induction ceremony and was pleased to see on previous pages the names Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, and Bertrand Russell.”
Ruth Mandel, 81, on April 11. The Princeton resident, whose family had escaped from Germany when she was an infant at the start of World War II, was involved with the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers for more than 40 years. She served as director of its Center for American Women and Politics from 1973 to 1994. She then served as director of the Eagleton Institute until her retirement in 2019. She was also the author of “In the Running: The New Woman Candidate,” published in 1993.
A virtual celebration of life in Mandel’s honor will take place Wednesday, May 20, at 3 p.m. Register at eagleton.rutgers.edu.
Robert Jefferson Wolfe, 72, on March 31. A 1969 alumnus of Princeton University, he returned in 1974 to serve as the school’s assistant treasurer. Beginning in 1976 he served as a consultant to Princeton’s development of the mixed-use Forrestal Center. In 1993 he founded Picus Associates, which manages the 2,000-acre development on behalf of the university.
Norman Peter Herzberg, 82, on March 29. A mathematician, he worked at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Princeton for more than 30 years.
Claudio Spies, 95, on April 2. The former Princeton University music professor was a composer, theorist, and leading expert on Igor Stravinsky.
Louise French Blodget, 99, on March 31. She helped open New Jersey’s first Planned Parenthood office, in Trenton, and was a longtime volunteer at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, Princeton University Art Museum, and Princeton Hospital.
Anne L. Freedman, 92, on April 2. Along with her late husband, Gerald, she purchased and operated Hopewell-based Kooltronic, an enclosure cooling manufacturer, in 1970.
Vincent Iorio, 90, on April 25. He worked for 42 years as a tool and dye maker for General Motors Corporation in Ewing.
John Murrin on May 2. He was a history professor at Princeton who focused on the American colonial period and American Revolution.
Richie Cole, 72, on May 2. An internationally known Trenton-born jazz alto saxophonist and composer, he mentored numerous regional musicians. He released more than 50 LPs and CDs, including two salutes to his home town: “Trenton Makes” and “Trenton Style.”