Just the other day I finished reading Artist On His Island: A Study In Self-Reliance by Randolph W. Johnston. The book collects the author's insightful journal entries logged between 1951 and 1974, illuminating an amazing story of a man seeking refuge from society and making a home for his family in a secluded harbor in the Bahamas.
Johnston, a teacher and gifted sculptor from Massachusetts, documents the formidable challenges of his odyssey. His wife is stricken with polio shortly after they arrive in the islands; the task of finding the right spot for their home – and actually building it – proves monumentally difficult; and the family’s sparse income makes their existence all the more tricky. But their resilience and impossibly optimistic outlook hold calamity at bay, weaving a tale that is gripping and immensely enjoyable.
Shortly after setting sail in search of their paradise, Johnston writes: “Our floating home rises and falls with each swell. My life, my whole world are aboard this little ship – my wife, my children, the fruit of my past love and labor and all my hopes for the future.”
Later, after considering options across the Caribbean, the family decides on the Bahamas as the perfect spot to settle: “Year-round swimming in the clearest waters in the world. Year-round sailing over sheltered bank waters. Cultivable, low-lying land that allows the sea breeze to cool you from whatever direction it blows.”
One my favorite passages in the book is the artist’s description of the night sky as seen from his sailboat in the darkened Bahamian waters: “The stars tell of space and time utterly beyond human comprehension and give us an inkling of infinity and eternity. Surrounded by darkness and space, a seaman on night watch reflects on man’s loneliness in an infinity of physical space. The all-enveloping silence is only held at bay by the splashing of water and the hurrying of the wind. Standing by the wheel, steering by stars instead of compass, one reflects again and again on the wonder and mystery of life. What a precious gift it is!”
Johnston succeeded in accomplishing what most people could only imagine – leaving behind the machinery of the modern world and building a peaceful, productive life in the tropics. He did it on his own terms, and with the people he loved most.
His story is an extraordinary account of courage, unrelenting determination and strength. It certainly gives some lift to my dream of escaping to a deserted island. Read more about the Johnston legacy here.