You can’t help but be intrigued. There in the middle of an industrial area, halfway between New York and Philadelphia is a 45-foot sculpture recreating the famous World War II image of a sailor kissing a nurse. Look closer, and you will see a miniature couple kissing beneath it and another across the street observing it all. Around you are the warehouses and depots of Hamilton, New Jersey. And improbably, in the middle of it all is the Grounds for Sculpture.
Created in 1992 on what was once the premises of the New Jersey State Fairgrounds by J. Seward Johnson, this 35-acre sculpture garden is delightful, irrespective of the season. You become a child again, on a treasure hunt, as you wander through winding tree tunnels, poke your nose into hidden alcoves, open doors to nowhere. What is hiding behind this rock, that bush or under the trees?
Your prize? One of the 250 whimsical and sometimes irreverent sculptures, created by well-known and emerging artists, scattered throughout the gardens, interspersed with thousands of trees, bushes, plants. Meander down a path entitled “The Forest of the Subconscious” and you will confront a large acrylic cube entitled “Heart’s Desire” filled with dolls and hearts — Gloria Vanderbilt’s dream box.
Stroll through a culvert into a bamboo forest and suddenly you are surrealistically staring back at yourself in a mirror. Wander into a copse of trees and Claude Monet appears, lurking behind a tree, his easel set up to capture the image of a couple overlooking the lake as in “The Terrace at Sainte Adress” (here entitled “If it were time” by sculptor J. Seward Johnson). When we visit in January, the statues are covered in snow and the couple is gazing out over a frozen lake.
Traipse into a clearing and you might trip over two men and a nude in the woods, a take-off on “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” here entitled “Dejeuner, Deja Vu.” Don’t miss the second woman crouching by the edge of the water and the open book near the men. Peek around a bush where a sign reads “Employee Shower” and your eye will catch the reflection of a young woman in a mirror, taking a shower, as the snow piles up on her clothes, hanging on the hooks.
Thanks to the fanciful interpretation of J. Seward Johnson, in this garden, the three-dimensional, life-size sculptures bring Impressionist art to life. Works by over 150 other artists provide a rich visual treat throughout the grounds. As you go from one experience to another, you will surely work up an appetite. Although you can get soup and sandwiches at the Peacock Cafe (where peacocks roam in warmer weather) or the Gazebo (open only in warmer months), to complete your experience, lunch at J. Seward Johnson’s “Rat’s Restaurant” named after the Character Ratty in “Wind in the Willows”, is in order. You will think you have walked into Monet’s garden in Giverney, complete with bridge, weeping willow, and lake.
Try the Autumn Tarte a la Flambé, an exquisite creation which blends the flavors of apples, mushrooms and cheese on a flaky pastry, followed by the short ribs frites (the meat melts in your mouth and contrasts with the crispness of the fries) or the Jail Island Salmon, its flaky pink meat falling apart at the touch of a fork. And for dessert, don’t miss the profiteroles, filled with a creamy homemade pumpkin ice cream and covered with crisply toasted hazelnuts and warm white chocolate fondant.
To truly appreciate this garden, visit in every season. In spring the blossoms frame the sculptures; in summer the allées become green tunnels and the scents of roses fill the air; in autumn orange and red leaves litter the pathways and in winter the statues peer out at you from under the deep snow. It is an oasis amidst the anonymity of industry.