"Backstories"-- Bringing the tales behind Seward Johnson's sculptures to life at Grounds For Sculpture
The smile has been a mystery for centuries. Millions have peered at it. Researchers have studied it. Some critics even wonder if it’s even a smile at all.
But Friday night at Grounds For Sculpture, the members of a New Jersey theater troupe will attempt to answer a key question: What caused the Mona Lisa to make that grin in the first place?
Well, they’ll guess, at least.
The one-night-only event is called “Backstories” — a collection of three one-act plays that imagine what might have happened in the moments leading up to three iconic images in art and pop-culture history: the painting of “The Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci, the impromptu kiss between a sailor and nurse in Times Square at the end of World War II, and the movie scene in which Marilyn Monroe stood on a subway grate and watched her skirt blow suggestively upward.
“It’s going to be different from anything else,” explains Dambra Sabato, the founder and artistic director of A Saturday’s Child, the troupe that’s putting on the performances at 8 p.m. on August 15 at the 42-acre sculpture park in Hamilton Township. “We take you all the way up to that moment. The climax is that iconic moment.”
It’s a concept that excites the directors of Grounds For Sculpture, located just outside of downtown Trenton. They say the plays are part of an effort to bring more theater to the park, which often hosts lectures, concerts, and dance routines.
“It gives us an opportunity to look at those iconic moments in a different way,” says Rena Perrone, the park’s curator of performing arts. “We want to establish ourselves as a place where unique art can take place. This is one step closer to that.”
The event is actually an extension of an ongoing retrospective on the work of Seward Johnson, the artist who founded Grounds For Sculpture in 1992. Johnson — the grandson of Robert Wood Johnson I of Johnson & Johnson fame — is noted for crafting life-like bronze sculptures of people.
More than 280 pieces by Johnson — still living at 83 — are currently scattered throughout the park’s sprawling landscape. Part of the exhibit is a series he did called “Icons Revisited,” in which he crafted sculptures inspired by artwork or images that are burned into popular culture. Among them is “A Reason To Smile,” a life-sized recreation of the Mona Lisa; “Unconditional Surrender,” a 25-foot-tall depiction of the world’s most recognizable post-war kiss; and “Forever Marilyn,” a 26-foot, 17-ton version of Monroe’s sex-infused pose.
The directors at Grounds For Sculpture wanted to transfer those pieces into theater some way. So they turned to A Saturday’s Child, a troupe that had hosted a few events at the park in recent years.
Sabato, the troupe’s leader, had a concept: How about taking three of the moments depicted in Johnson’s series and coming up with backstories to them?
“I pitched it, and they liked it, and then I was screwed,” Sabato remembers. “Because on the way home from that meeting, I thought: ‘What have I gotten myself into? For 500 years, people have been trying to figure out why this woman smiles. I have to do it in a one-act play?’”
He responded by diving into loads of research. “I needed to know as much as I could know,” Sabato explains. “I have to wrap one possibility in 100 truths. It’s a possible truth. They’ve got to have substance to them.”
Part of the allure is her enigmatic smile. It seems to shift from being happy one moment to serious the next. In 2000, a Harvard professor concluded it’s easier to see the grin with peripheral vision. And in 2012, a group of archaeologists hoped to find out more about the woman when they dug up bones in Florence that they believe to be her remains.The most difficult of the three, Sabato says, was easily “The Mona Lisa,” one of the world’s most beloved — and scrutinized — pieces of art. Scholars believe da Vinci painted it between 1503 and 1506, using the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant as the model.
In other words, Sabato was under pressure. “I had to find out what would make her smile that wasn’t trite or light-hearted or an easy way out,” he says. “It’s based in fact. So I needed to find out a reason to justify that. To justify a kiss, you have 1,000 ways to go. But in order to justify that smile, nobody knows why that smile happened.
“It seems like she has the upper hand,” Sabato continues. “What did that smile mean? Did that smile mean, ‘I got ya?’ And how did she get him?”
Sabato himself will play da Vinci. “I don’t usually perform,” he explains. “I write, I direct. I don’t go up there very often at all. But there’s something about digging into this guy that got to me.”
Another treat, he says, will be watching Erica Smith impersonate Marilyn Monroe in that famous skirt-fluttering scene from the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.”
“She channels this woman,” Sabato says. “It’s remarkable. We were lucky to get her.”
For Sabato, “Backstories” is another entry in a varied resume. The Philadelphia native has been working in New Jersey arts since 1981. After singing for 13 years, he wrote and directed shows for casinos in Atlantic City. Then, in 2010, he launched A Saturday’s Child — a company with a name that riffs on his own.
“My last name means Saturday in Italian,” he explains. “It’s ‘Sabato’s child.’ Everything we do in the company I create. They’re like my children.”
And that, he says, is the most fulfilling part.
“At this point in my life, I’m less concerned with my career and am happier to pursue my work,” Sabato says. “I’m very lucky. I’ve spent my whole life doing this. I’m doing the things that tickle me at this point in my life. This show tickles me.”
The performances will be indoors, in the east gallery at Grounds For Sculpture, which currently features a large mural by Johnson. Perrone says the event — which is $30 for members and $35 for non-members — dovetails perfectly with the pieces created by the park’s founder.
“My experience with Mr. Johnson’s work is: He loves what people see in it and how they interact with it,” she explains. “Everybody takes something different away. So this is an opportunity to give our impression on those moments that are really aligned with the philosophies everyone experiences when they look at his iconic, life-like work.”
Those who miss the show can still enjoy the park’s retrospective on Johnson through September 21.
“I don’t think you’ll see this amount of Mr. Johnson’s work anywhere else,” Perrone says. “It’s completely unique to us. And you have a great landscape in the background.”