Sussex Fairgrounds nets fisherman sculpture

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  • Photos by Don Carswell NJ State Fair Executive Director Barbara Wortmann and Richard Hammler with the sculpture.

  • Butch Decker Pond.

Passersby at the Sussex County Fairgrounds might just do a double take when they spy a fisherman patiently trying his luck in the memorial garden. Even a second glance might not be sufficient to realize that it is not a man frozen in time, but a sculpture named ‘Midstream’ created by artist Seward Johnson.

The lifelike bronze sculpture, actually a replica of the original that stands in the 42-acre Grounds for Sculpture garden in Hamilton, was placed to commemorate New Jersey State Fair Director Butch Decker. Decker was involved with the fairgrounds for four decades, including many years as Head Groundskeeper, until his death this past February. Decker enjoyed fishing in his leisure time.

Johnson, a descendant of both the Johnson & Johnson family of corporate renown and former Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, wove a convoluted life on his way to becoming a sculptor. He was a self-described ‘total failure’ at the family company and later tried painting before finding his true calling as a sculptor.

“His first sculpture was called ‘Stainless Girl,’” says Richard Hammler of the Fairgrounds Board of Directors. “Out of 11,000 entries in a sculpture contest, it received first prize! Now he has over 160 sculptures in the garden. All are of ordinary people doing everyday things.”

Hammler and three colleagues, Tammie Horsfield, Howard Worts and Blace Flatt, were tasked with creating an appropriate memorial for Decker.

“We named the pond in his honor,” says Hammler, referring to Butch Decker Pond at the entrance to the fairgrounds.

A large rock was placed and engraved with the pond’s new name.

“It was then that I heard about the statue,” he says. “ I got in touch with Seward Johnson, who spent about 40 minutes with me. I asked him if we could buy the sculpture, but even he didn’t know the price.”

When the price was finally determined, it was far beyond the resources of the committee. However, Johnson agreed to lend the replica in time for the August 1 opening of the fair.

“All they asked in return is that we embrace it, love it, and invite people to come see the Grounds For Sculpture.

"All of this is true to the spirit of Johnson’s work. The main idea of the Grounds For Sculpture garden, which by coincidence sits on the former NJ state fairgrounds, is to make artwork more accessible to the public. The open-air garden is meant to be less intimidating than indoor art museums. It’s a hidden treasure in our state,” says Hammler.

Now that the fair has finished for the year, ‘Midstream’ will float along to its next destination. But don’t be surprised if it resurfaces next year.

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