By Joanne Colella
It has often been said – most notably by the writer Oscar Wilde – that life imitates art. But there is a magical, whimsical place just outside the state capitol where art imitates art, and where astonished visitors find lovely surprises everywhere as they wander the expansive 42-acre property. Grounds for Sculpture, located at 126 Sculptors Way in Hamilton, New Jersey, was founded 22 years ago by philanthropist and popular sculptor Seward Johnson (grandson of Robert Wood Johnson), whose lifelike creations are displayed in public settings all around the globe. Travel to any major east coast city, for instance, and you will see them in parks, on streets, and outside buildings: realistic bronze figures of people from every walk of life that often provoke double-takes from passersby. Here in the heart of central Jersey, on the site of the former state fairgrounds, Johnson established a non-profit, public, outdoor art park (with some indoor exhibits, as well) showcasing hundreds of sculptures from various world-renowned and upcoming artists, as well as his own work. All of it is meant to be experienced, not merely viewed.
Beautiful and unique displays take you “beyond the frame” and pay homage to famous Impressionist paintings, which are reproduced into three-dimensional sculptures against colorful scenes of nature, carefully groomed to copy the original canvas scenes. Along the waterfront, faux couples sit on benches together to kanoodle, while sculpted children play games in the grass. Round a corner, and you may stumble upon a scene where an artist appears to be recreating the view in front of him, a window washer who looks quite authentically hard at work, a dinner party with assorted notable guests, or a Victorian-era woman strolling with a parasol. After a while, one realizes it’s necessary to look twice to be sure if the people around you are the real thing, or yet more sculptures. All of this is set within a tranquil wooded setting that provides many quiet nooks and pathways amid landscaped fields and carefully tended gardens.
There are several dining options to make your visit complete, from casual light fare at the Van Gogh Café, The Gazebo, or The Peacock Café (where they will even pack a picnic basket for you to enjoy in the park) to the delectable country French cuisine served at Rat’s Restaurant, named for a character in the The Wind in the Willows, Johnson’s favorite childhood book. The charming restaurant invites diners to step back in time to Claude Monet’s beloved town of Giverny and is surrounded by impressionist scenery, gardens, a lily pond, and a curved wooden bridge.
The park is open year-round, with both permanent and temporary exhibits plus numerous workshops, presentations, concerts, and other special events for all ages, and every season holds its own unique appeal. Currently, Grounds for Sculpture is hosting the largest and most significant exhibition in its history, running until September 21. Seward Johnson: The Retrospective features more than 150 works – just a fraction of his collection – that have been installed around the world. Among them are larger-than-life cultural icons such as a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe, a 25-foot-tall replica of the famed photo of a kissing sailor and nurse on V-J Day, and the face and limbs of a giant emerging from the earth.
The artwork in this must-see-it-to-believe-it exhibit almost defies description. And unlike other museums and art galleries, visitors to Grounds for Sculpture are allowed – even encouraged – to touch most of the artwork and to actually become part of the exhibits themselves, which make for some memorable photographs! Another delightful surprise is the sight of peacocks that freely roam the grounds.
At the Welcome Center, you’ll find guest services, the café, museum shop, a gallery, an orientation theater for tour and school groups, and facilities for both private and corporate events. Maps are available for those who wish to wander on their own, and guided tours are also offered. Grounds for Sculpture is closed on Mondays, except for Labor Day and Memorial Day, as well as on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Hours vary by season and for some members-only events.
Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for seniors age 65 and over, $10 for students age 6 to 17 or with college ID, and free for members and children age 5 and under. Parking is free. For more details, visit www.groundsforsculpture.org or call (609) 586-0616.