Editor’s note: Sculptor and Grounds For Sculpture founder John Seward Johnson, Jr. died of cancer on March 10 at his winter home in Key West, Florida. He was 89.
The grandson of Robert Wood Johnson, founder of the New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson, a multinational producer of healthcare products, Seward Johnson used his family connections and wealth to create hyper-realistic sculptures, a world class atelier, the sculpture grounds, and, at times, controversy.
His work can be found all over Hamilton, including “Symbiosis” at the Hamilton Township Free Public Library, “First Ride” along Klockner Road by Hamilton Building Supply.
But his legacy is as much in the people and community he brought to Hamilton as it is in his work itself.
A Princeton native, Johnson chose his hometown as the place to establish a center to fit his sculpting needs. Several years later, by the late 1970s, the center became a magnet for young American and international artists looking for work as well as a center that provided services for internationally acclaimed artists such as George Segal, Georgia O’Keefe and Isaac Witkin.
After growing out of two Princeton area locations, Johnson worked out an arrangement with his family’s foundation to purchase the former Garden State Fairgrounds in Hamilton in 1981 and the atelier was established in the mid-1980s.
Grounds For Sculpture was born after foundry artists began to display their sculptures near the atelier and inspired the idea of a permanent exhibition site.
The 42-acre property now houses Grounds For Sculpture, Johnson Atelier and the International Sculpture Center.
One of the artists who moved to this area because of Johnson, Léni Paquet-Morant has written an account about her experience with Johnson, and how it led her to lay roots in Hamilton. Her account follows.
* * *
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 8-hour shift making atelier client’s 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 married in 1989 in Hamilton’s town hall by Mayor Jack 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 over 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 on 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 1990s. 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.