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‘He cared about individuals’

The official opening of the late J. Seward Johnson II’s The Awakening was held on May 21

The sheer size of The Awakening sits fixed in the ground at D&R Greenway’s St. Michaels Farm Preserve drawing people of all ages to explore.

People not only stand around the late J. Seward Johnson II’s 70-foot-wide sculpture, but they also walk through, touching and taking photos next to the various pieces that make up the sculpture that depicts a giant man anchored deeply in the Earth who struggles to free himself.

The official opening activation and ceremony The Awakening was held on May 21.

Seward Johnson II’s “The Awakening” opening ceremony at D&R Greenway’s St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell Township on May 21.

“For my dad, seeing people engage with his work meant everything to him,” said John Johnson III, Seward’s son. “He did not really care so much about the art establishment. He didn’t care about structures, he cared about individuals.”

Michael J. Love (center) with a rhythm tap dance improv performance.

Visitors attending the official opening had their own thoughts and reactions to Johnson’s work.

“I’m glad this is here. I came to the opening ceremony, because it was very important to me to have art in the area and support the artists and community with art installations like this,” said Ewing resident Laurie Pyrch, sharing that she loves the angst of the sculpture.

“The desperation and I think the desire for survival to climb out from whatever torturous conditions this figure is escaping from. I feel a lot of pain here.”

Dawn Ferguson, a Frenchtown resident, said she could not believe the size and detail of the sculpture.

The Awakening looks one way online, but you have to be in person to get the feeling of the environment that it is in and how well it was designed,” she said.

The sculpture’s expression and pain stood out to her.

“There is a lot of pain in this sculpture and unknowing as it is sinking into the ground. The sculpture just gives you that last bit of hope,” Ferguson added. “The sculpture seems like it is sinking, yet the sculpture is rising at the same time. This is something you really need to sit and look at to see where you are in life and how you really feel about it.”

Johnson’s The Awakening will be at St. Michaels Preserve for 18 months.

“For me I was super excited to hear that this piece was coming to Hopewell Valley. It is one of my favorite pieces,” John Johnson said.

“This is a giant emerging from the Earth and to me it is on some level symbolic of my dad’s own transformation as an artist. The opportunity we all have to climb out of whatever mental box we have created for ourselves that we are living in.”

Partnerships between the Hopewell Valley (HV) Arts Council, The Johnson Atelier, D&R Greenway and a grant from the Atlantic Foundation, a Johnson family foundation, made the sculpture’s move and installation possible.

At the official opening of The Awakening, people were able to engage with performance art that took place all around the sculpture, which included “Every Day We Wake Up” by local artists Tomia MacQueen and Mandy Qua; Sattriya Dance Company with performances by Madhusmita Bora and Prerona Bhuyan, who paid homage to the original dwellers of the land; and Maiko and Sayaka Uchida with a performance called “Awakening.”

Tomia MacQueen (left) performs during opening activation and ceremony.
Usarga: Offering performance in The Awakening.

In addition to storytelling by local historians Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills on the journey of Black women and acceptance of natural hair; a rhythm tap performance from Michael J. Love; and poetry/performance from donia salem harhoor.

Elaine Buck (left) and Beverly Mills (right) storytelling about the journey of black women.

“The goal was to bring in community and come into this idea of what it is to awaken, whether that is respecting the nature that is around or learning more about the history that is here and celebrate Seward’s life,” said Ann Robideaux, who curated “Every Day We Wake Up” with donia harhoor.

Robideaux noted that they looked into local artists when lining up the types of performances for the ceremony.

“We wanted to connect the performances to sculpture in some way. For example, Michael J. Love, we knew that Seward loved to tap dance, so when I saw him, I was immediately like this is a good fit,” she said.

“Tomia is one of the chorographers and is also a farmer. I liked that she connected the land with dance. We looked for a variety of interpretations of what this idea of waking up could be.”

The opening activation and ceremony for The Awakening is part of a larger year-long art project to celebrate Seward Johnson II’s work, his works impact, and his life called “Seward Johnson | Celebrating the Everyday.”

“Seward’s work invited us to ask proactive questions. Not everybody loves all the sculpture, but that is part of being a provocateur,” said Carol Lipson, executive director HV Arts Council. “He wanted people to take photos, he wanted people to get back together after COVID-19, he wanted people to celebrate the unheroic acts of day-to-day life.”

The celebration of Johnson’s life comes three years after he passed away in 2020 at the age of 89.

“Seward and his family love Hopewell Valley and Hopewell Valley loves Seward and his family,” Lipson said.

A plan to bring his sculptures to the each of the schools in the school district, several places in Hopewell and Pennington, and also Washington Crossing State Park is well underway.

Johnson’s life-size sculpture called Bake Sale has been installed in Hopewell Borough in front of the Old School Baptist Church and Meeting House. The installation was sponsored by Kefi Godfrey of Compass Real Estate.

Additionally, a police officer called Time’s Up was installed at the intersection of Delaware Avenue and Main Street in Pennington and another called Captured, has a temporary home at Howe Commons in Pennington after being unveiled during Pennington Day on May 20.

The sculptures portray people doing mundane moments in life. The sculptures are and will be installed in high visibility locations in Hopewell Borough, Pennington, Titusville, and Hopewell Township.

For the schools, the plan is to have Johnson’s Keep Life in Balance sculpture placed between Timberlane Middle School and Hopewell Valley Central High School; There Now You Can Grow placed at Hopewell Elementary; Follow the Leader placed at Bear Tavern, My World installed on the grounds of Toll Gate; and Can We Dance Here, Mommy? installed at Stony Brook.

For more information about the year-long art project, The Awakening or to donate, visit www.hvartscouncil.org

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