Ordinary activities are beautiful at the Seward Johnson “Celebrating the Familiar” exhibition, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden’s Summer of Sculpture festival, now on view through September 7.
The exhibition features 25 detailed sculptures of people doing everyday tasks with carefree abandon, something missing during these pandemic days.
“This Seward Johnson exhibit ‘Celebrate the Familiar’ reminds us of the pleasure we each derive from our everyday activities and how we miss them when we aren’t able to do them,” Dave Forehand, Dallas Arboretum’s Vice President of Gardens, said.
Seward Johnson, the grandson of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson, is best known as a sculptor of the Hyper-Real. The details of his bronze sculptures are so life-like, people do double-takes. “Even though they are made out of bronze, the clothes look real,” Forehand said. “I see people and they are standing still and for a minute, I think they are statues and vice versa. I sometimes think the statues are people.”
Each sculpture required two years to create and it took seven tons of bronze to create the “Celebrate the Familiar” exhibition. Johnson’s sculptures have been featured in private collections and museums throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Johnson died in March of this year at the age of 89. “I’ve chosen to sculpt ‘real life’ because in our busy society–filled with so much technology and idle distraction–it’s easy sometimes to forget the simple things that give us pleasure. If we open our eyes, life is marvelous. The human spirit triumphs, if only for moments in a day. I try to have my work call attention to those moments,” Johnson said before his death.
His “Double Check” sculpture of a businessman inspecting the contents of his briefcase was originally installed in Liberty Park near the World Trade Center. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, toppled the sculpture, but it was not destroyed. Firefighters mistook the statue for a human and tried to rescue it. The sculpture became a symbol of resilience and a reminder of those lost whose bodies were never found. In 2006, it found a new home at Zuccotti Park, not far from its original location.
Visitors to the Dallas Arboretum are greeted by “Sidewalk Concert.” A violinist plays passionately, with his instrument case open at his feet. The bills in the case have Johnson’s face sculpted in relief on them.
Other sculptures are more contemplative. “Far Out” shows a man lost in thought. “I draw inspiration from the people that I watch. I tend to stand back and take notice of singular figures, pairs, or groups of people and how they stand together, gesture and pose. I’m fascinated by the body language,” Johnson said.
“Wine, Food and Thou” depicts a woman breezily striding forward with a picnic basket in one hand. At the Dallas Arboretum, she is walking towards a view of White Rock Lake and appears to be anticipating solitary revels.
Some sculptures beg visitors to stop and imagine a story. “Getting Involved” is an older woman engrossed in her knitting. A small pile of letters and a baby picture sit on the bench next to the woman. Visitors may ponder what she is knitting and for whom it might be. “Crossing Path” depicts two older women talking. The sculpture has been seen in Germany, Monaco, Luxembourg, Spain, and Italy. Passersby feel like they might be eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation or lively debate.
“Who’s in Charge” radiates the joy of a little boy as he sits on his father’s shoulders. It is a moment that encapsulates the human connection society craves during this socially isolating pandemic. The Seward Johnson Atelier speaks to Johnson’s ability to capture humanity in bronze: "It’s true, we are living through extraordinary circumstances. Art is always a reflection for us of beauty, of the timelessness of humanity. We hope that this exhibit of Seward Johnson bronzes reminds each of us, as we examine the details of the craft of an artist’s creation, of the choices that are made when taking two years to create a sculpture. But also, to stand back and look at the intention of the work. In his lifetime, Seward Johnson wished to bring light-heartedness and joy to those who came across his sculptures. To surprise them when they found themselves fooled into thinking it was a person - asking for directions or the time. He was also drawing our attention to the shared experiences that make up our day such as walking the dog or taking a nap in the sun. It can be the smallest acts that bring about a sense of calm, of normalcy. These sculptures can be a signpost of such small acts of life. Acts that we can sink into in the midst of difficult times.”
The Dallas Arboretum reopened in June, limiting capacity, and requiring advance online timed tickets. Masks are highly encouraged in the garden and required in the restrooms and indoor facilities.
A one-way circular path has been established to guide visitors safely through the garden, showcasing the sculptures in surprising and thoughtful ways. “We wanted them to be really accessible to everybody because these are sculptures you want to get up close to and take selfies with,” Forehand said. “We wanted to give people as much access to as much of the garden so they would see everything and also have a logical flow through the garden.”
Learn more: https://www.dallasarboretum.org/