On the road leading to artist Seward Johnson’s studio — next to Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture — there is a lone stainless steel work of art — a stylized female nude next to a waterfall.
While she can be easily missed by those flocking to the see the sculptures — some hyper-realistic celebration of daily life others exuberant depictions of famous images — that make up the massive “Seward Johnson: The Retrospective” at the grounds, the nude — his first work — is vital to the story.
It is an idea shared in the details of a lengthy discussion with Johnson about his connection to art and the creations of the grounds.
“I ache this year more than I have in the past 15,” says Johnson, 84, about a recent fall that resulted in a hurt knee. He is sitting on a coach in his studio in a 19th-century French-styled building at Grounds For Sculpture. Small gray maquette figures on wood palettes people the room. Paintings fill a wall. In one corner is a drum set that he plays.
“As you may know my wife” — nee Joyce Cecilia Horton and called by her middle name — “and I are giving the park to the community,” he says with concern that can be detected in both face and voice. “The gift is complete at the end of the year. The point was to get the park as close to self-sustainability by that time. So the last jump was using my retrospective to bring people in and finish the Johnson Center for the Arts so the park can be operable.”
Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson Company in New Brunswick, has leveraged family foundations to create the famed sculptor grounds and atelier. That leverage includes the Atlantic Foundation formed by his father, J. Seward Johnson, whose interests extended beyond the family business and included oceanography and art collecting.
Obviously, a retrospective that encompasses a 50-year career and a long public life is the catalyst for reflection. And while Johnson shares thoughts during the interview, he also reveals himself in his work — especially in the series of paintings that he did on serving trays, which fill a section of the West Gallery.
That series started, he says, years ago when he had trouble sleeping and thought it would be nice to serve himself something on an image that he liked. But there is more. A visitor to the display spots foreign lands and works of art at GFS, his house in Hopewell Township, a dog named Baxter walking in the sunset, and poetic images, such as “Alone,” where a sailboat with a single occupant heads out into a sea.
Then there are simple sketches, including a simple yet elegant reclining female nude like the sculpture at the entrance of the park and the early paintings in his studio.
Johnson responds to a question about his personal connection to art indirectly through anecdotes that paint a portrait of the artist as a yearning young man. “I just gave an address to the prep school that I went to and said that I had written four different speeches and that my wife edited the fourth and the headmaster put something in. I started giving the speech, and then I tried to find my place and said, ‘I’m afraid this is a complete loss, and here’s what this lecture can do.’” After making a gesture of hurling the papers into the air, he continues, “I was trying to tell a school with learning disabled people of what I went through.”
The school was Forman School in Litchfield, Connecticut. His learning disabilities included dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
“The main thing I tried to talk about is that you had to just feel your way as a dyslexic. You have to solve your problems your way. If you think you are on the right way you probably are. And you have to let the inside speak,” he says.
Prior to Forman, the New Jersey-born Johnson spent his childhood at Merriewold, the castle-styled family estate that he shared with three sisters on River Road in Highland Park, a few miles from the Johnson & Johnson headquarters in New Brunswick. The house, Johnson once noted, “has always been in my memory . . . to go to sleep at night, I’d picture myself flying over it — the roof, the tower, everything. It made me feel so secure, it was where I belonged, it was my identity source.”
“I was kicked out of the school at 16 for coming back drunk from a weekend,” Johnson says about his school days with a mischievous smile, and, relishing the tale-telling, adds, “The school was very strange. The headmaster was Christian Scientist. Though he labeled the school nonsectarian, he wouldn’t hire anyone who was not a Christian Scientist. So when I went back (to the school) I told them that god spoke to me — I was a cynic at 16 — and said that god wanted me to be a Christian Scientist. He got so excited, and he got a professional person (to tutor me). I really learned a lot about all religions, about translations from the Greek and Hebrew in the Bible. And I was put in charge of the school on work days. I would put all the young people on task so the older ones could drink and smoke in the woods. I was bullet-proof being a Christian Scientist.”
While not the best student, Johnson says that he did graduate and moves past his talk about youthful rebellion to gratitude. “There was one wonderful faculty member, and this was during the Second World War. He was fighter pilot in it, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Air Force. You would imagine that he would be about the most unsympathetic person (at the school), but he saw to it that no one in Algebra I and II would go lower than 80 percent. There were people — individual teachers — who helped people. And I managed to get out with marginal grades.”
He says that he was unsure of what to do and what he could do as a next step and decided to apply to college. “The University of Maine was accepting warm bodies in poultry husbandry, so l went there. But the dean got angry with me because I was missing football practice.”
Johnson continues, “It was now during the Korean War. I was flunking so much that I either had to enlist or be drafted. So I joined the Navy and served four years in Korea. I was 21 when I first went over. We were sent us in to draw fire at an enemy harbor. And they said, ‘don’t worry.’ But I was looking through binoculars and could see people — the enemy — walking on the streets. I was in communications, got called by the captain, and left the gun mount. And my gun mount was hit and everyone was killed. I was 21 and carrying body bags to the mess hall. I remember the engineering office say to me, ‘Why didn’t you get killed too?’”
Johnson says that the first time that he got paid — which had been held up for a few months and was a hefty $2,000 — and went on shore he had a mission and a life-changing experience. “I got drunk, and I lost my wallet. And I thought, ‘I have paid for my life.’ I was really happy about it.”
Then a twist: a man finds the wallet and brings it back complete with the money. Then, Johnson says, it happened again and again. “It’s what they call good karma. I built it by wishing it out. It was kind of a beautiful thing. This is one of the things that I was writing about in the speech: having karma and the right attitude.”
After military service, an unsuccessful attempt to join the family company, a failed marriage, emotional turmoil, thoughts of suicide, and other events chronicled in numerous books and newspaper articles about prolonged and bitter fights over the Johnson fortune, he explains how art entered his life — a moment captured on one of those painted trays that depicts a couple flying hand-in-hand to an island. “I met my wife flying to Nantucket. We were first together in Chatham, Massachusetts, and we went out painting on walks. We painted and painted some more. When we moved to Cambridge, I audited all sorts of classes at Harvard because I didn’t have to take exams. And I was painting nudes in the late 1960s. But I wasn’t happy with it. Cecilia said, ‘You seem to be artistically talented and you lived on a farm when you were young and seem to be very mechanical. Have you ever thought about putting both together?’ And she reaches into her pocket and takes out an ad for a sculpture class, and I went to sign up for it.”
Since he needed to know how to shape metal he realized that he had to take classes in art and welding. But again formal education was more a hindrance than help. Johnson says of one of his first classes: “During the first period the professor started talking art theory and about positive and negative space. I said I felt sick, left, and got a studio, got Styrofoam, and started doing a piece.”
Johnson says that he continued working with the female nude — a traditional and conventional subject — and was laboring on a sculpture that involved two models. “The first model I had was a rough kind. She moved, thank goodness. I then got another model. She was more innocent. She drew her legs in, as I had watched people at cocktail parties do when they pull their feet in when they uncomfortable. So I cut the legs off the sculpture and built new legs.”
The artist says that after several months of work he eventually brought the figure to a foundry in Brooklyn to be realized in metal. “The owner asked if he could put it in a competition, and I got a call from U.S. Steel. I won the grand prize. This was in May ’69. I never got another prize, but I got a vocation,” he says of “Stainless Girl.” He adds with a smile, “I have things happen at the right time.”
Johnson says because of the award he began receiving commissions, which included one for an Episcopal church in Concord, Massachusetts, that wanted a Christ figure. “My first piece was a nude, so I figured I would try this,” he says. He adds that he went to Concord and proposed placing a window so that during services people could see “Jesus lugging the cross up the hill and then on Easter morning the light would hit and everyone would see it. Theatrical!” A flair for the dramatic comes from his family: his mother, Ruth Dill, had an actress sister who married Hollywood film icon Kirk Douglass, and Cecilia produces cabaret shows in New York.
The response from the church was far less than hoped, with one official balking at the materials and saying, “Stainless steel is for cutlery, not for Christ.” While the figure now stands in front of Trinity Church in Princeton, Johnson says, “I decided that I wasn’t going to do another thing for the church. But I did.” Yet it did not matter: he says his work “was selling like hell.”
Having moved to the Princeton area, Johnson was “in a fierce fire of creativity,” creating the first of his Celebrating the Familiar works, “The Newspaper Reader,” still reading in the Princeton Battle Monument park at Bayard Lane and Stockton Street. He also rented an old school on Alexander Road by Route 1 and says, “I hired guys off the street and hired this fellow who used to have a foundry. He was teaching how to get thing things done. He said, ‘Seward, what we have here is a school.’ I realized that I could deduct (expenses) if it were a school and went to a lawyer and incorporated. My wife said, ‘You never told me you were going to do something like this.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know.’”
Johnson smiles and says, “The atelier turned out to be one of the most fantastic things that I have done. It became world famous in four years. Because of my dyslexia, I built it like a guild system. The one who knew the work was the professor. I had little bit of contempt for the art world. I didn’t want to have any criteria for entry. If someone could produce a bronze, they got in. Ghana was a place where people came from. Australia, Poland, Italy. There were 24 countries (represented) in the late ’70s. The excitement was that I would have (the staff) on my work, but they would also do work with George Segal and other artists. The foundry members were all artists who could solve problems.”
The atelier moved twice: first further into Princeton Junction and then to Garden State Fair Grounds in Hamilton. “We brought this” — he gestures to the building and grounds around him — “in 1981. My father allowed his foundation to buy it. It was in the mid ’80s when we moved here.”
And there it blossomed in two ways.
First it was the working school that continued to attract people from around the world — and who have stayed and artistically enriched the region. The spirit of the place was for artists to share information. “Each of these people could teach sideways. I brought in people who were specialist in ceramic molds, people who were experts in patina, and others in chasing (a metalworking technique). They were like the faculty. The place was open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to work on my work and paying artists. From 5 to 11 p.m. every night the equipment was there for the students and faculty. And there were times when people would sell.”
It was that selling of work that created the second and more public development, and the idea of a establishing a permanent exhibition site for sculptors emerged as Grounds For Sculpture — a 42-acre tract for exhibitions, the Johnson Atelier, and the International Sculpture Center.
Of his work being featured at GFS, Johnson says, “I have a purpose in mind, and it is a social purpose. My work deals with society — not my tray work that deals with me — and what I think are the needs of society: the visceral response. To me the visceral response is where the value of art lies. Art is the highest form of communication known to man. When it is in a museum or wherever it is, it communicates the emotional message. I feel the Greeks used sculpture to tell people the right way to do things, the right way to live. That’s why I did people in parks. But they also served as a decoy to bring the ducks into the parks. So it is like cause and effect.
“What is the effect I want and what is the best cause? Other things have guided me that way. For instance the impressionists were the first civilized culture that celebrated going back into nature. That is why — when we got into this park — I decided to convert French impressionist paintings that people will know. I was giving them as presents and being loved and hated for it by different members of the society.”
The love and hate is part of the business. Johnson’s exhibition at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C., in 2003 was attacked by some. Others praised it. And record-breaking number of park visitors coming to see the Johnson retrospective are visibly enjoying the playfulness of the trompe l’oeil works and going “beyond the frame” and interacting with famous French impressionist and post-impressionism works. That includes two versions of Manet’s “Olympia” and Henri Rosseau’s “The Dream,” both featuring a reclining female nude.
Johnson says that he would like to bring the French-inspired works to France but was told by a cultural attache that he would be guillotined. “I’m trying to figure out how to penetrate that market,” he says of those both abroad and at home. Having marketing and artistic sense, he says that his “Icon Revisited” addresses his effort.
While the Marilyn Monroe is the most pronounced of that series of famous images (including a giant version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”), the one Johnson talks most passionately about is the sculpture “Unconditional Surrender,” based on the famed photo of the sailor and nurse kissing during the Victory in Japan Day celebration in Times Square. “That symbolism of that icon is powerful,” says Johnson.
In addition to a towering version included in the retrospective, three life-sized replicas have been touring the nation and attracting veterans — some of whom renew their wedding vows before it.
Tears come to Johnson’s eyes as he thinks about his work’s impact on fellow vets. “Part of me gets emotional,” he says. “But I also see the marketing. I don’t want to be cynical about it, but I see it. Down in Key West” — where Johnson has a winter home — “I put all my work around the museum down there, an old customs house, and on the porches and the ground is all my work. So people come off the ships by the thousands and come to see the works. It put the museum in the black. We have six shows going around the United States and one in Albany for five or six years. They paid us to have it shipped there. It sort of breaks even with our cost and a little more.”
Johnson’s talk moves to American society and democracy, noting that he is reading the book “Who Stole the American Way,” and begins to think aloud how Americans needs to create a culture where people can learn to live together.
“I am trying to figure out how it can be taught more efficiently in school — to teach how important it is. We learned to live without slavery, learned to live with women voting, interracial marriage, and then same sex marriage. I was trying to think of an approach — I was going to try to use the discipline of philosophy, but they are arguing. Different types of philosophy are fighting. If they can’t solve their own problems, how can they solve ours? When a piece of art somehow affects a person so much, it affects their life from there on. That is very important. It’s very important that you don’t let any intellectual static get in the way. The visceral moment is the center of what this park is about.”
Johnson’s thoughts move now to the future of both the park and his work. Johnson thinks of the controversial changes made at the Barnes Foundation collection. Alfred Barnes assembled a world-class art collection to be housed in a specific location for specific uses. After his death his vision was challenged by its board of trustees, which moved the work to a new location in Philadelphia. “What I am trying to do is to ‘not do’ what Barnes did wrong in losing control. He had some beautiful ideas, but he was too rigid. I’m going through a period of ‘what ifs.’”
To help him, Johnson says he is discussing the matter with a former member of the Barnes Foundation and involved with the decision to discount its founder’s wishes.
As for his own work, he says, “I am moving into a whole new style, (using) the mystic (painter) Odilon Redon. I am building up a whole approach. I call myself a re-visionary because he is the visionary. These are going to be experiences. I want to use all the dark spaces in the park.” And though his work celebrates the familiar, Johnson is also embracing new approaches and technologies. “You need to exercise and develop with the tool, any new tool.”
At the end of the discussion Johnson is thoughtful and says there is something to remember, “Humanity is so important, and I’m celebrating humanity. I call this the celebration of the American way and the continuation of the American way.”
His sculptures of the common man and woman interacting with children, couples embracing and holding hands, kids playing, and a sailor kissing a nurse have been saying the same thing in communities across the nation for decades, starting with a lone silvery muse sleeping by the waterfall.
Seward Johnson: The Retrospective, Grounds For Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. Through Sunday, September 21, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $8 to $12. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.