Thursday, August 28, 2014

a day of inspiration: grounds for sculpture

Three days left to enjoy my summer vacation with my daughter Katie, and on this beautiful but hot day, we decided to visit Princeton for breakfast at our favorite pancake house (PJ's) and then make our way to Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, NJ. The sculpture garden is on the grounds of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds and is the most amazing place to be inspired by both nature and art. I was introduced to Grounds for Sculpture years ago when I took a trip to the park with a few of the other art teachers at my school. Being introduced to these beautiful grounds by other artists while I discovered the intrinsic beauty and creativity of every inch of the park was quite an experience. It is with this same excitement and delight that I still visit this place. Of course, my daughter shares my crazy thrill for all things creative, so this visit was just as special as the first time.

The landscape filled with distinctive plants and trees changes with every season. Nestled into this natural setting are pieces of artwork, sculptures in wood, metal, glass and concrete. As you walk along a bamboo lined path, or meander into a hidden trail, the sculptures take you by surprise. They make you think, they often make you smile, and they always make you take yet another photograph as a reminder of the unique and beautiful vision you just happened to discover.

Seward Johnson, a present-day American sculptor, is the founder of Grounds for Sculpture, and there is a wonderful retrospective exhibit of his work at the park. Katie and I saw so many of his signature pieces in every corner of the place and half the time we were guessing if the people up ahead on the path were sculptures or actual visitors to the park! Johnson is best known for life size pieces of bronze-cast people, posed in typical everyday activities. While I am always fascinated by the creative process, I tended to gloss over the technique and skill with how he created his realistic and dimensional forms, and instead was drawn into a staged world envisioned by the artist, each time feeling a bit strange to be occupying the same space with his sculptures. If a couple of real people sitting on a bench in a park were engaged in a conversation, you may notice them from afar, or even come closer to ask them a question, but you certainly could not invade their private space, peer closely into their faces, or reach out to touch an arm or leg. At the Grounds for Sculpture, you are welcome to come close and touch even though it feels quite strange, as if you are defying an unspoken rule of social etiquette.

Seward Johnson was a painter before he became a sculptor and this is most evident with his "Beyond the Frame" series. With these pieces, he built elaborate sets based on the artwork of a well-known painting (often an impressionist work of art), and you are invited to walk through the space and become part of the painting. Not only are there natural highlights and shadows in the dimensional folds of the sculpted clothing, his subjects are painted to show dimension as an impressionist artist might have done with soft, visible brushstrokes. The effect of his surface brushstrokes is most amazing when you photograph the scene and the flattened image reverts back into a picture of a flat painting! I am an artist who enjoys working most with two dimensional forms and this exhibit challenged me to appreciate space and dimension in a new way. I was blown away with the irony of Johnson's vision and the recognition of the paintings that inspired his sculptures and sets. Today, I walked through van Gogh's room and caught a glimpse of dancers made famous on a Renoir canvas. What a thrill!

On exhibition this summer are also huge, 20 foot sculptures of popular icons created by Seward Johnson. Marilyn Monroe caught the eye and the camera lens of many visitors. But I love the incidental pieces, ones not displayed on a pedestal, but regular people just placed into the landscape as if they belong there, such as a man washing a window, another man painting a fence, a hot dog vendor, and a young art student sitting on the grass drawing a picture of a sculpture. What a great place to be inspired!

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