In the ’80s, a life­like statue of a skate­boarder by J. Se­ward John­son Jr. stood near Eastern Mar­ket.

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton john.kelly@wash­ Twit­ter: @johnkelly

I moved to the Dis­trict in 1982. There was a statue of an African Amer­i­can kid on a skate­board just north of Eastern Mar­ket, near Sev­enth Street and North Carolina Av­enue SE. I loved that statue.

Some­time in the late 1980s, I be­lieve, the city re­did the bricks around the mar­ket and took down two trees. And the statue was gone.

Of course, many years have now passed and it is hard to find many folks who even re­mem­ber that statue. No one re­mem­bers who the sculp­tor was, who paid for the statue or where it might be cur­rently lo­cated. I would love to find out.

— Marci Hilt, Wash­ing­ton

That statue of the skate­boarder was cre­ated by an artist The Wash­ing­ton Post once in­vari­ably re­ferred to as the “Band-Aid heir.” J. Se­ward John­son Jr., 87, is from the famed John­son & John­son family, though he prefers art to phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

In 1992, John­son told Post colum­nist Lois Ro­mano that he was fired from the family firstaid con­glom­er­ate af­ter ar­gu­ing with his un­cle. That’s when he de­cided to be­come an artist in­stead of a busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive.

“It was an open door,” John­son said. “As a child I al­ways felt like an out­sider . . . . [The art] made me reach into peo­ple and re­late to them.”

John­son has not only re­lated to peo­ple, he’s repli­cated them. His sig­na­ture style is ex­tremely re­al­is­tic. How re­al­is­tic? In 1982, 10 John­son stat­ues were placed in the court­yard of the Four Sea­sons Ho­tel in Ge­orge­town to pro­mote the open­ing of a new cafe. Among them was the fig­ure of a man un­der an um­brella hail­ing a taxi. Cab­bies began screech­ing to a halt in front of the ho­tel, ea­ger to pick up a fare.

Paula Stoeke, cu­ra­tor of the Se­ward John­son Ate­lier in Santa Mon­ica, Calif., once lived in the Dis­trict not far from the skate­boarder. She said the statue, part of the artist’s “Cel­e­brat­ing the Fa­mil­iar” series, was re­moved when the area around Eastern Mar­ket was ren­o­vated. In the in­ter­ven­ing years, it has been ex­hib­ited across the United States.

It is cur­rently at John­son’s stu­dio in Hamil­ton, N.J., be­ing pre­pared for an ex­hi­bi­tion in Con­necti­cut in the spring.

While that par­tic­u­lar John­son isn’t in our area any­more, sev­eral oth­ers are. The most gi­gan­tic of them is “The Awak­en­ing,” five large casta­lu­minum body parts that are set into the ground at Na­tional Har­bor. They re­sem­ble a bearded gi­ant emerg­ing from the earth.

A hand­ful of hu­man-size John­son cre­ations are nearby: a woman hold­ing her shop­ping, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe with her dress blow­ing up, and the fa­mous Times Square V-J Day kiss­ing cou­ple. You’ve prob­a­bly come across oth­ers.

John­son has been as ac­tive with a checkbook as he has been with mod­el­ing clay and molten metal. His phi­lan­thropy has funded art across the coun­try. His “Awak­en­ing” sculp­ture came to its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion, at Hains Point, as part of the In­ter­na­tional Sculp­ture Con­fer­ence, which John­son backed fi­nan­cially.

In 1992, he opened a 42-acre ar­bore­tum and pub­lic art park in Hamil­ton, N.J., called Grounds for Sculp­ture. His New Jersey stu­dio has crafted the work of such crit­i­cally ac­claimed sculp­tors as Ge­orge Segal.

Such sup­port of art has won John­son more fans among the art world in­tel­li­gentsia than his own prac­tice of it. In 2003, Post critic Blake Gop­nik called a John­son ex­hibit at the Cor­co­ran that con­sisted of dio­rama-like sculp­tural recre­ations of 18 fa­mous 19th-cen­tury im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings the worst mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion he’d ever seen.

What pur­pose does art serve? An­swer Man doesn’t have enough room to ex­plore that thorny ques­tion in depth. It should el­e­vate, he sup­poses. In­spire. Make us think.

But some­times art has a more di­rect pur­pose. The Vil­lage of Friend­ship Heights owns two J. Se­ward John­son Jr. sculp­tures. One is of a young woman sit­ting and draw­ing next to a foun­tain. The other de­picts a po­lice of­fi­cer with his hand out­stretched, as if to flag a pass­ing mo­torist.

The bronze cop is at one of the vil­lage’s busiest in­ter­sec­tions, where it helps con­trol traf­fic. Town man­ager Ju­lian Mans­field told The Post: “You think he’s real, and you slow down.”

Ask and ye shall re­ceive

Do you have a ques­tion about the Wash­ing­ton area? Send an email to an­swer­man@wash­


Se­ward John­son’s “The Awak­en­ing” came to its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion, at Hains Point, as part of the In­ter­na­tional Sculp­ture Con­fer­ence.


“The Skate­boarder” is in New Jersey and Con­necti­cut-bound.

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