Sculptures of Seward Johnson

Innovative works – stand back, take a good look, and feel the joy.

Sharon Lorenzo reports from the cobblestone streets of Nantucket.


Seward Johnson (1930-) met his current wife Cecelia Joyce on a flight to Nantucket, and they have been on-island every summer since then.  This season in the first collaboration with the Artists Association of Nantucket and the Nantucket Historical Association, twelve of the 450 sculptural works of Seward are in residence in public venues throughout the center city. Curated with Paula Stoeke of the Johnson Atelier, these art works have brought smiles and selfies to many island residents and visitors.

Seward Johnson and wife

 Seward and Cecelia Joyce Johnson

The great-grandson of the founder of Johnson and Johnson Corporation, a multinational medical device and pharmaceutical company headquartered in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Seward resides near the entry to Nantucket Harbor where he can rest and regroup in the summer months with family and friends.  In a recently published interview, he explained that most of his public sculpture is designed to allow others to engage with his work through visual and proximate association.

Sidewalk Judge Sculpture

 The Sidewalk Judge

The work entitled The Sidewalk Judge, an artwork located on a bench outside the Artists Association on Washington Street, allows the viewer to see the work, sit beside it, have a photo taken or just enjoy the quiet presence of the gentleman.  Seward has mentioned that this work is a tribute to an older generation of men who would sit in the center of their towns and give out free advice to those who passed by.

 Ice Cream Man

Another downtown favorite of this summer is the Ice Cream Man, conveniently located across from one of the popular haunts, The Juice Bar, which sells one scoop cones for $5.25. Selfies galore have been taken in this busy spot with young and old admirers alike.

 Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930, Art Institute of Chicago. Oil on canvas

Seward Johnson's Sculpture God Bless America

  God Bless America

A breath away from this work is a small version of Seward’s iconic interpretation of the Grant Wood painting entitled American Gothic, executed in 1930 and currently owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.  A recent retrospective of the art of Wood at the Whitney Museum in New York City brought together many of his works. The severity of this couple seemed to replicate the effects of the national financial depression on even the remote towns of the mid-west. Since the sculpture is a three-dimensional interpretation of a two dimensional painting, legal counsel for Seward find this is a fair use of an image in a different artistic medium, and therefore is not a copyright violation of the work by Grant Wood. The city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa is rumored to be considering a purchase of a copy of this work by Seward which he calls God Bless America, for their town in a version that will be 26 feet in height.

 Keep Life in Balance

In close proximity to these two works is another Johnson special entitled Keep Life in Balance.  This is Seward’s interpretation of a quote by Albert Einstein: “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving. “   The noted physicist, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his work on general relativity,  lived near Seward and Cecelia in Princeton, New Jersey for many years where he was a professor of theoretical physics at the University  until his retirement in 1945. Seward presents a very whimsical Einstein cruising on his bike in the summer sun.

 Hadwen House, 1844

The last venue in Nantucket for three installations is the Greek Revival Home of Captain William Hadwen who was a very successful whaling captain entrepreneur. Built in 1844 by Frederick Coleman, this home was given to the Nantucket Historical Association in 1963.

Sculpture of Seward Johnson Celebrating the Familiar

 Celebrating the Familiar

 Dejeuner Déjà Vu

Sculpture of Seward Johnson, Monet

 Claude Monet at his Easel

Welcoming the visitors at this venue is this fellow reading at his leisure on the front porch.   In the back yard of this home are two more sculptures by Seward of the French artists Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. In the first instance,  Monet is working at his easel painting the garden in full bloom. The second is an installation of Seward’s  interpretation of Manet’s famous painting Dejeuner sur L’Herbe, from 1863 located at the Musee  D’Orsay in Paris.  Whether Hadwen would have liked these works in his garden is anybody’s guess, but I think he would have been flattered to have work on loan from the grandson of another very successful financial entrepreneur like himself. These works do engage the visitor with the space and add a new dimension to how Nantucket Island can entertain its arts community during the summer months.

Seward Johnson has made an enormous contribution with his art to many communities that are graced with his innovative works. They make us stand back, take a good look, and feel the joy that his artistic creativity has given to our world. These works will remain in situ through the Columbus Day weekend 2019 on Nantucket Island.

All photography is courtesy of the Johnston Atelier, Nantucket Historical Association and the Artists Association of Nantucket.