SOMERVILLE, NJ – Visitors from the Seward Johnson Atelier will be taking up residence up and down Main Street beginning April 1, each one certain to stop those walking by as well as motorists driving by.
A curious assemblage if ever there was one, this is no April Fool’s joke.
This is art at its very finest, life-sized bronze sculptures depicting ordinary people doing ordinary things created by world-famous sculptor Seward Johnson, 88, a native New Jerseyan whose grandfather, Robert Wood Johnson, was the founder of Johnson&Johnson in the late 19th century.
For his part, Seward Johnson founded the 42-acre Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township – outside of Trenton – in 1992 on the former site of the New Jersey State Fair.
The eight head-turning sculptures to be installed along Main Street celebrate the simple things in life, moments frozen in time – a woman carrying a bag of groceries, a man washing a storefront window, a little boy stealing a lick of ice cream from a girl’s ice cream cone, a woman walking a dog, a mother reading to her child.
Sites selected for the sculptures, beginning on East Main Street and heading west, include the Dessert Plate; outside the Phoenix Diner; Division Street near the Post Office; Division Street near Main Street; alongside the United Reformed Church; on the sidewalk in front of Starbuck’s at the corner of Davenport Street; on the sidewalk near the corner of Doughty Avenue and on the triangle in front of Borough Hall.
The bronzes will be offloaded one at a time by forklift from a trailer truck.
“I want my work to disappear into the landscape and then take a viewer by surprise,” Johnson has said. “After he gets over the shock of being fooled, it becomes an emotional discovery. Then he owns the sculpture. People often revisit their favorites. They become like friends.”
The sculptures will be on loan from the Seward Johnson Atelier through July 1.
Former Somerville Mayor Ellen Brain was instrumental in leading the effort to secure a $15,000 grant to pay for the sculptures from the Somerset County Regional Partnership, according to Deidre Rosinski, who is chair of the non-profit Arts on Division organization in downtown Somerville and who worked with Brain on the initiative.
Following an early career as a painter, Seward Johnson turned his talents to the medium of sculpture, creating more than 450 of the life-sized cast bronze figures, many of which have been featured in private collections and museums in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, as well as prominent places like Times Square and Rockefeller Center in New York City, Pacific Place of Hong Kong, Les Halles in Paris, and Via Condotti in Rome.
In recent years and closer to home, Seward Johnson’s sculptures have been installed in Flemington and Maplewood.
Seward Johnson’s body of work consists of three distinct series: the “Celebrating the Familiar” man on the street works, the collection called “Icons Revisited” based upon historical figures and images and the “Beyond the Frame” series inspired by Impressionist paintings.
The urge for passers-by to stop and take a “selfie” with the sculptures will be irresistible, according to Jackie Morales, director of Somerset County Tourism, a branch of the Somerset County Business Partnership.
“Public art installations are critical to place making and driving people to places such as downtown Somerville,” she said. “From a tourism perspective, this is a great thing to promote and a unique thing to add to the exploration of Somerville, which has sprung up as a great destination,” she said.
“It’s a perfect fit for our town,” Rosinski said, “to have some fun, with the work of what you’d consider a local artist.
“The statues will make people stop, put a little smile on their face, it’s a perfect way to greet spring and be here through the early summer,” she added.
Rosinski also emphasized the street displays make up for what she calls an “arts deficit”
“We don’t have a movie theater, the schools’ auditoriums are the closest thing we have where you can put on a large cultural event,” she said.
“Arts on Division has been using the closed-off street for outdoor shows, live concerts and other events to make up for that deficit,” she added.
More images of Seward Johnson’s bronzes can be seen online at sewardjohnsonatelier.org