Seward Johnson
Sculptor, philanthropist
Born: April 16, 1930, in New Brunswick, New Jersey
Died: March 10, 2020, in Key West, Florida
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2013: Arts & Entertainment

Seward Johnson could fool you. Based on his family background, Johnson could lull you into thinking he might be a corporate mogul. But he was not. Rather, he was a sculptor – and one whose hyper-realistic works were indeed meant to fool the eye.

Johnson was one of six children of John Seward Johnson, the son of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson, the New Brunswick-based pharmaceuticals giant. His mother, Ruth Dill Johnson, was the daughter of Bermuda’s attorney general.

As a youth, Johnson apparently displayed a learning disability. His family sent him to a school for dyslexics. He tried his hand at college at the University of Maine, but did not graduate. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he took a management job in the family company. Johnson was in his 30s when he decided to try his hand at art, first as a painter, then as a sculptor.

Johnson developed a style of creating life-size bronze statues depicting people in daily activities, such as reading a newspaper. Many of these pieces have been installed in public places where they seamlessly blend into “the bustling world around them,” as described by the publication ArtNews.

A striking example is Double Check, a seated statue of a man peering into his briefcase. The 1982 work was placed in Liberty Plaza Park, near the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The piece is so realistic that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, firefighters tried to “rescue” the man amid the ash and rubble of the collapsed towers. The piece was later reinstalled in the renamed Zuccotti Park.

Many of Johnson’s works are also featured in private collections and major museums around the world. Among his best-known sculptures are the 26-foot-tall Forever Marilyn, a depiction of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing upwards (as seen in the movie “The Seven Year Itch”); and Unconditional Surrender, which captures the iconic moment in Times Square when a sailor and nurse kissed in celebration of the conclusion of World War II. Another striking piece, The Awakening, depicts a giant trying to escape from the ground. The five-part piece spans 72 feet and can be seen at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.

New Jersey is home to numerous Johnson works, including Morris Frank and Buddy, a life-size statue of a guide dog with the co-founder of the Seeing Eye, which resides at the Morristown Green, in Morristown; and Out to Lunch, a seated figure bent over a book in Princeton’s Palmer Square. But the largest representation of Johnson’s work can be found at Grounds for Sculpture, a 42-acre sculpture park Johnson created in Hamilton, New Jersey, on a former fairground near Trenton.

Johnson launched several initiatives to help nurture and support his fellow sculptors. The foremost was Grounds for Sculpture, which continues to showcase the work of many contemporary artists (including New Jersey Hall of Fame member George Segal). Notably, it also features many pieces from Johnson’s Beyond the Frame series. These crowd-pleasing works are three-dimensional recreations of classic paintings by the likes of Renoir and Manet. Other trompe l’oeil works by Johnson stop visitors in their tracks as they stroll through the lushly landscaped property

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