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