Near the edge of a lake in Hamilton, New Jersey, Seward Johnson spies a fisherman sporting a cap and waders, his rod and reel extended over the water, waiting for a fish to bite.
The peaceful scene could be found in thousands of quiet fishing spots across America—except that this life-size fisherman is cast out of bronze and rests near a suburban manmade lake at Grounds For Sculpture, a contemporary sculpture garden and arboretum created by Johnson for unassuming art fans to enjoy.
Johnson likes that the sculpture, which he calls “Midstream,” is off the park’s gravel pathway and partially obscured by trees. “It makes it much more realistic,” says Johnson, 83, who sculpted the fisherman in 1987. “He’s not trying to be seen. He’s like a person.”
An artist, arts advocate and philanthropist, Johnson has sprinkled such lifelike figures throughout the 42-acre park, which also displays hundreds of sculptures and exhibits by other artists among his “Celebrating the Familiar” sculpture series. Johnson opened the attraction in 1992 at the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds site to make art more accessible to people who may feel intimidated by traditional museums.
“[Many] people are turned off by museums,” he says. “This makes it a fun destination.”
Johnson has made a name for himself by sculpting ordinary people doing ordinary things—reading newspapers on park benches, clipping hedges, eating hamburgers—but his background is anything but average. His grandfather Robert Wood Johnson co-founded the pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson in 1886, so Johnson—an heir to the immense family fortune—was born into a privileged lifestyle. He grew up in a castle and had his own pony cart at age 6. As a youngster, he often traveled with an FBI escort because his baby sister, Diana, was the target of a failed abduction attempt.
As a young adult, Johnson worked briefly for an uncle at Johnson & Johnson but was unceremoniously dismissed. “I was a total failure,” he recalls bluntly. “I had dyslexia, I didn’t graduate from college, and I was fired from the family company.”
For a decade, Johnson struggled to decide what to do with his life. He dabbled in painting until his wife, Cecelia, suggested he try sculpting. At age 38, Johnson created his first sculpture out of stainless steel. Foundry workers who cast his work were so impressed that they entered the nude statue, called “Stainless Girl,” in a national contest sponsored by U.S. Steel. Johnson’s sculpting debut won out of more than 11,000 entries.
“I never got another prize in my sculpture,” he says. “That one gave me a career.”
Johnson began developing his “Celebrating the Familiar” series—featuring painted bronze people engaged in daily life moments such as hailing a taxi, tying a shoelace or sweeping the sidewalk. It was well received by the masses, though art critics called his work kitschy and unoriginal.
“They called me the three-dimensionalization of Norman Rockwell,” says Johnson, referring to the famed 20th-century illustrator. “Abstract art had come [into style]. They tried to make art something that only some people could understand. My work was quite understandable to the guy on the street, so I was breaking the rules.”
In 1980, Johnson began to expand beyond his art-imitating-life figures. One of his sculpture series, called “Beyond the Frame,” offers three-dimensional interpretations of famous Impressionist paintings by Van Gogh, Monet and other artists. His “Icons Revisited” series includes giant sculptures of popular moments in American history, including actress Marilyn Monroe’s skirt billowing in the subway breeze, and a sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square to celebrate the end of World War II.
Johnson’s everyman sculptures and iconic figures joyfully and unapologetically celebrate Americans being American. Today, they dot plazas and parks from Florida and California to Italy and China.
Inducted last year into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, Johnson was hailed for staying true to his artistic calling and diverse audience instead of pandering to critics. “If his personal style inspires fledgling artists who never believed they were ‘artists’ in the high-brow definition, then his contributions will be sustained for generations,” says Hall of Fame spokesman David Chmiel.
Johnson has no plans to slow down, and his fans are glad. At Grounds For Sculpture, two women pause to study Johnson’s figurines of two college-age students snuggling under the trees.
“We prefer this sculpture to the really modern [art] because we don’t understand that,” says Beth Bynon, 70, of Norristown, Pennsylvania. “But this is fun.”