My daughter-in-law Amy thought I would enjoy touring Grounds for Sculpture, a mostly outdoor park near Princeton. So, she made brunch reservations for the family during my recent visit to New Jersey. And, she was right! Amy, my son, the two grandchildren (ages 10 and 12) and I made it a memorable day.
As we were nearing the address, we were greeted by large outdoor sculptures in the surrounding industrial park. I was surprised by this location, but learned the park sits on the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds. The larger than life, 3-D version of Grant Wood’s famed painting, American Gothic, was my favorite.
We parked at Rat’s Restaurant, inspired by Kenneth Grahame’s beloved classic, The Wind in the Willows. The eclectic eatery incorporates whimsical architecture including a variety of secluded nooks, dormers, exposed beams and slanted ceilings. You’ll also find typical indoor and outdoor dining spaces. Walls are brightly painted and covered with artistic murals, or objects’ art. The surrounding gardens make you feel like you stepped into Monet’s beloved French town of Giverny. In fact, the aptly named Monet Bridge crosses over a lily pond just a stone’s throw from the rear patio.
Country French cuisine is the specialty of the house where diners can order off the menu or indulge with the all-inclusive brunch buffet. We chose the buffet including delectable French pastries, stuffed French toast, breakfast meats, eggs to order, quiches, and salads, an array of fresh vegetables and a prime rib and lamb carving station. A sampler of desserts was brought to the table and included small-sized portions of carrot cake, cheesecake, cookies, brownies, and other sweets.
Following the meal, we headed out the back door that leads to one of the entrances. Grounds for Sculpture, located in Hamilton Township, is a 42-acre, well-tended and beautifully landscaped park plus a museum, visitor center, and a few less-pricey cafes. The mission of the park is to let the public experience sculpture in a relaxed setting rather than a formal museum. It succeeds.
Hundreds of people of all ages were strolling the walkways or across the grass. Kids are free to run and even climb on or into some works. Some remain hands-off. One piece is a musical sculpture that calls for spirited banging; Kyra gave a concert! Both grandkids grabbed the lifelike bronze kids linking their hands with the semi-circular work. The whole family momentarily joined the men standing in the Depression Bread Line. A super large copy of Marilyn Monroe’s famous pose with her wind-blown skirt provides provocative photo opts. Don’t forget to bring your camera and make sure to look for the hidden art behind shrubs, off in a corner, or behind a fence.
You will run into many of J. Seward Johnson’s life-size impressionist-inspired sculptures as well as his creations of everyday people. In fact, many of them are so lifelike, you think they are real: a couple pushing a stroller or a teenager napping near the pond. The artworks are castings of living people.
Back in 1984, J. Seward Johnson, philanthropist of the Johnson & Johnson family, New Jersey native and famed sculptor, envisioned a public outdoor art arena. Construction began in 1989 on the site, but none of the rare, beautiful trees or flowering shrubs existed at the time. Public tax-exempt bonds and private foundations associated with Johnson financed the landscaping and sculpture acquisitions. Today you will discover hundreds of pieces in permanent outdoor collections, seasonal exhibitions, and many educational programs.
By all means, if you find yourself anywhere near the Princeton area, don’t miss this unusual, carefree outdoor world of art.
If you go:
Tickets: $15 – adults, $12 – seniors, $10 – students, children 5 and under are free.