This is part one in a two part series about a recent visit to a magical place that remains in my heart and mind no matter how far away I am. When I was a girl, I dreamed about living on Harbour Island in the Bahamas and believed I would someday grow up to become a resident art teacher and artist there. But sometimes we pursue our dreams and other times we shelve them, assigning them to the wide realm of childish fantasy.
It feels somewhat disrespectful to say that frequent family visits to the island led me to consider the place a home…there were and are Bahamian residents with long and rich histories, and we were simply tourists, no matter how attached we became to the people and place. Our visits, sometimes several times a year, were always temporary and fleeting. Despite our status as visitors, my brother and I became friends with many of the islanders, especially the children near our age who we met on the beach, or on the streets, or on a makeshift dance floor somewhere, or on the sand flats at one end where we could walk way out into the ocean at low tide.
This year, encouraged by my brother, my parents generously broke our hiatus from Harbour Island and invited the family to revisit this place so thick with memories and stories and natural beauty. Some of the stories are our own, like when I was 8 years old, we entered an Inn called Ocean View to find a donkey named Francis milling about in the living room. Or our visits to Angela’s for countless dinners sitting under the stars amongst the roosters. While sitting at Angela’s this time, listening to her great-granddaughter read a book, I realized that instead of isolated moments in time, the stories and memories continue to evolve, and that life continues with or without us there.
Some stories, belonging to others, became our own folklore as we watched island families grow, events occur, and traditions unfold. For example, when my parents first visited 40 years ago, they explored an abandoned palatial home on one end of the island. As the story goes, a Greek shipping magnet built the opulent home for his new bride. In addition to the home and gardens, the compound included a short airstrip that ended in the crystal clear bay known as starfish alley (though as children we knew it as a barracuda den) and a dock for multiple yachts. A few days after the wedding, the bride ran away in the night, deserting her new husband and home. The grief stricken man walked way, never to return.
My parents tell of walking through the house where they found furniture such as a dining room table, frozen in time, with beautiful place settings, stemware and candle sticks, as if the home was waiting for its occupants to return. Soon after my parent’s initial visit, the mansion was partly destroyed in a fire, and the remaining objects found new homes. My brother and I carefully explored every nook and cranny as children, imagining the missing tenants and expecting ghosts to drive us away. And each year, from age 8 to 25, I watched nature reclaim the structure. This year, I was relieved to find so much of it still standing tall and proud.
As I walked around the island this time, amongst the schools, the restaurants, the shops and the homes, I considered a line I recently read in a novel by Orhan Pamuk: “When you love a city and have explored it frequently on foot, your body, not to mention your soul, gets to know the streets so well after a number of years that in a fit of melancholy, perhaps stirred by a light snow falling ever so sorrowfully, you’ll discover your legs carrying you of their own accord toward one of your favorite promontories.” While this is not a place of snow, there are other elements to stir my melancholy and my legs each morning carried me to points I’d long forgotten.How will I capture the sheer beauty of this place in my paintings? Will I even try? The beauty I see is filtered by concepts about life and death, the passage of time, ideas about the closed chapter of childhood, and a hyper-nostalgic longing. As I sketched and photographed during endless walks on the island, I found myself searching for something that no longer exists. But fragments remain, such as the narrow swath of rough concrete that once was the airstrip but is now covered with heaps of rusted metal and the island’s natural growth reclaiming what man once built. Fragments such as the fig tree decorated year round in Christmas lights led to a longing for a place that is now only memory intertwined with what exists in the present.
Will I paint in an attempt to capture profound beauty? Or I am compelled to incorporate evidence of history and time passing? Perhaps a worthy artistic attempt could be made with painting specific objects, such as shoes, shells, bouys, and remnants of previous lives. In the recent New York Times magazine article, “On Photography,” Teju Cole writes, “Objects have the strongest memories of all…” and “objects are what remain, remnants of something that was before, a moment, experience, person, situation that no longer exists.” Perhaps I can take a cue from Cole and simplify complex ideas, memory, history and the beauty of Harbour Island into paintings of meaningful objects.
Inevitably, I will over analyze and complicate as I produce this body of work; the consequence of allowing too much emotion into the process. I will think of my childhood friend, Dawson, who I looked so forward to seeing this visit but who, I learned, died in a boating accident two years ago. And I will think of others who are gone and some who have arrived and how everything changes while so much stays the same. I can hope these ideas and the accompanying emotion will make an appearance in my paintings and allow viewers to deeply connect with the art while I express years of impressions of Harbour Island.Next up: Harbour Island Part Two will cover island art as a source of inspiration. Thank you for reading!