Grounds For Sculpture invites visitors into a sprawling garden and contemporary art museum.
In a nondescript section of Hamilton, New Jersey, deep within an industrial park, is an extraordinary cultural oasis that makes adults feel like children and fills children with an appreciation for the beauty that artists can create. Grounds For Sculpture is a park of 42 acres filled with history, fantasy and vision, founded in 1992 by John Seward Johnson II to promote contemporary sculpture. It is now home to works from well-known and emerging artists covering every medium and possibility of design.
Housed on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds, the land at Grounds For Sculpture has been transformed into a green — in more ways than one. It’s an example of harmony between man and nature. Looking at its carefully planned landscaping, with trees and plantings offering the perfect backdrop for the artwork, it’s almost incomprehensible to think this land was once a flat, overgrown mess of long-lost historical significance.
Seward Johnson looked past the vast emptiness and imagined the sculpture garden. To make that vision a reality, in 1985 he instituted an architectural design competition where three design firms were offered $10,000 in compensation for their design presentations. AC/BC Associates was awarded the project and Brian Carey was selected as chief architect. He continues working at Grounds For Sculpture to this day.
Testing Togetherness, Seward Johnson
The artwork of Seward Johnson, visionary and founder, is well represented. Though he’s produced various types of sculpture, his most famous creations are his interpretations of other artists’ paintings as well as everyday people doing everyday things. Wandering through the park, you catch a glimpse of a couple having a private moment in a doorway, a couple relaxing on the grass or a teenager talking on a cellphone — only to realize they are works of art.
Though Grounds For Sculpture has many sculptures on permanent display, some presentations change frequently, both outdoors and inside the exhibition halls. Currently one of the halls features the work of Israeli artist Boaz Vaadia. The use of recycled materials has been the cornerstone of his art, and this showing of his work centers on figures carved from reclaimed slate sidewalks.
Concern for the environment is evident throughout Grounds For Sculpture, though much of it may go unnoticed by the casual visitor. For example, the sloped roof of the Welcome Center collects rainwater and channels it to the nearby lotus pond.
Even the materials used for paving in some areas are designed so the runoff water can be reused, and plants and trees chosen for the park are incorporated into their best environmental use. A towering archway of wisteria entwines itself around the framework of an original building from the state fair, visually erasing the man-made intrusion on nature.
At Grounds For Sculpture the environment isn’t the only concern. Stressing the importance of exposing as many people as possible to the arts, the nonprofit organization offers different tours for people with disabilities — including a hands-on tour for the blind. Many of the art pieces within the park can be touched, providing a wonderful way for children to enjoy the cultural experience. One of the most popular areas for children as well as the visually impaired is the exhibit of bronze fantasy animals by Dana Stewart, where the pieces are small and close to ground level. In addition, wheelchairs and electric convenience vehicles are available to rent and a map is provided that clearly marks the most accessible pathways.
Lester and Waiting for Wings, Dana Stewart
Adding to the balance between man and nature are the animals seen around the grounds. The bushes and trees provide the ideal sanctuary for birds, squirrels and chipmunks, while the lake is home to ducks. The muster of peacocks roaming throughout Grounds For Sculpture gather the most attention.
As you meander through the grounds, the reality hits you that there is no way to take in the full scope of Grounds For Sculpture in one visit. The main walkway’s offshoots are filled with secret “rooms” and hidden treasures. There are hills to climb and scenes out of paintings that unfold as you find them between the trees.
If It Were Time, Seward Johnson
Everywhere you explore there are whimsical and fun sculptures: children playing on the roof of one building or a nude descending from the roof of another.
There is also seriousness in depth and weight to the exhibits. Many pieces defer to figures in literature and fine arts. Tribute is also paid to the classic styles of sculpture.
Above all else there is a feeling of wonder, an appreciation for the vision of not only the artists but the architects of Grounds For Sculpture itself. Sculptures barely a foot high fit perfectly with their surroundings, as do the massive pieces that dwarf the tops of the buildings.
King Lear, Seward Johnson
It would be impossible to view all the artwork in one visit, and it’s worth additional trips to see some of the work at different times of the day or in various weather conditions. Watching the sunlight reflect off certain works, while the shade enhances others, is another fascinating aspect of the experience. Seasonally, the change of nature’s colors alone would make for a totally different adventure.
The diversity of the artists and art forms make Grounds for Sculpture appealing to almost everyone. The playful way the art is exhibited continually awakens your brain; meditative pieces are juxtaposed against amusing ones. Small details found in one piece balance equally with the magnitude of another.
Grounds For Sculpture offers tours, classes, lectures and workshops. It even has a HortiSculpture Tour that explains in detail the science used in choosing the plant specimens. A comfortable pair of shoes is a must, but your enjoyment will be provided by your surroundings. It’s a whimsical place to leave the real world behind for a few hours and enjoy an imaginative display of art within the living world. Visit Grounds For Sculpture’s Instagram account to glimpse the beauty and wonder now.