Holding Out: So Real, You Can Smell the Bread

Inevitably, passersby do a double-take. Is the old woman holding bags a real person or a sculpture? That small moment of doubt — that moment when the bread she's carrying looks fresh from the bakery — testifies to the craftsmanship of Seward Johnson, whose sculptures are temporarily anchoring key sidewalks in San Francisco's Lower Fillmore District. Holding Out is the most realistic of Johnson's San Francisco works, which city officials brought to the Lower Fillmore in June to spur more foot traffic there.

Johnson is one of America's most prolific sculptors — an octogenarian artist whose work often divides people into two distinct camps: those who admire the “everyday people” (and occasional famous figures) that he casts in bronze, and those who think Johnson's work is entirely too kitschy. “Some people think my work is easy because it's realistic,” Johnson says by phone from his East Coast home. “There was a long period in the 1970s and 1980s where people felt that 'real art' was abstraction. I have a sculpture park that has a lot of abstract work, which I love. People who know art history think they have some sort of corner on taste. I don't agree with them.”

Located in front of a mid-block post office, Holding Out is the most isolated of Johnson's S.F. sculptures, most of which are a block away, in a shopping plaza just off Fillmore and O'Farrell. A tagger has scribbled letters on the purse of Holding Out, whose eyes have apparently been altered by someone to look bloodshot. The additions actually give Holding Out an even more distinctive feel — Johnson says his original intent was to show an elderly woman “who's experiencing the stress of life. She's upset. Older women are quite expressive.”

Cities around the United States will rent Johnson's sculptures to attract more tourists (Forever Marilyn, a giant version of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing upward, has been bringing visitors to Palm Springs for a year), and Johnson's San Francisco works are only on display until year's end. “One time, a police officer started to interview one of my sculptures as a witness to an accident,” says Johnson. “He was embarrassed. When people get embarrassed, they don't forget my work.”

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