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Coconut harvesting at Pete’s Pub. Photo by Andy Schell
Coconut harvesting at Pete’s Pub. Photo by Andy Schell

Johnston’s Little Harbor – ‘Artist on His Island’

I spent most of the afternoon at Pete’s Pub harvesting young coconuts. The palm trees were low enough that I didn’t need to climb them or fetch a ladder. I sat at one of the chairs overlooking the harbor, ordered a glass of Mount Gay on the rocks, splashed a coconut or two in and enjoyed the fruits of my labor.

It was short-lived, but my little scavenging adventure in Little Harbor offered a brief glimpse of life in Randolph Johnston’s day in the 1950s. Johnston was a sculptor, an artist, and he fully embodied the word. He left a cushy job as a college professor in New England, and with the rest of his family, sailed off over the horizon aboard a schooner, in search of a simpler life.

Like Johnston, I arrived at Little Harbor by boat, having made the six-day passage from St. Croix to the south. Aboard Sojourner, we managed to sail through the cut on a freshening southwest breeze, and wind our way inside the reef (in sheltered water for the first time in almost a week) twenty miles north to Marsh Harbor. There we stepped ashore and had a cold round of Kalik, ‘Beer of the Bahamas.’ The next day, we visited Little Harbor.

When Johnston and his family arrived, Little Harbor didn’t exist. The harbor itself did, of course, but it was an uninhabited and scarcely visited corner of Great Abaco, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The family arrived by schooner, but quickly moved ashore, living in caves just to the west of the harbor while they collected materials to build what would become their homes. And a bronze foundry.

Hammerhead shark outside Johnston Gallery. Photo by Andy Schell
Hammerhead shark outside Johnston Gallery. Photo by Andy Schell

Johnston took to the pioneer life. He and his family had the place to themselves, could set their own pace. It didn’t take long to establish their shoreside homes, simple as they were. They were surrounded by abundance – coconut palms like the ones I discovered, reefs teeming with fish, lobsters hiding under each crevice and conch scattered about the shallows. Randolph and his family erected an art foundry based on the 5,000-year-old ‘lost wax’ method of sculpture. He wrote a classic book on the project called Artist on His Island: A Study in Self Reliance.

And Johnston was an exceptional artist. Scattered around the loosely organized property are life-size bronze works: hammerhead sharks, dolphins, turtles, whales, egrets and mermaids. Some of the most interesting works are nearly hidden from sight: a life-size stingray lying in the garden, an eagle scooping a fish from the sea along the path leading to the abandoned lighthouse.

Johnston was so good at his trade, in fact, that many of his works were commissioned by governments, both local and afar. His most famous work, Afro-Bahamian Woman, can still be seen in Rawson Square, on bustling Nassau, near the cruise ship terminal. The Vatican even houses a small collection of his works.

When I visited in early March, Johnston’s son Pete (his father passed away in 1992) was hard at work in the studio. We watched from afar as he hammered out the wax shape of a man standing six feet tall in the shade of the wooden roof. Later, while waiting for our flight back to Florida from the tiny Marsh Harbor airport, I discovered that this very work had been commissioned by the government in the Abacos, who’d paid a pretty penny for a Johnston sculpture.

Today ‘Pete’s Pub’ exists in homage to Randolph Johnston and his vision of self reliance on a Bahamian out-island. Pete, now full-time in the studio, has his son Greg to run his namesake pub with a handful of rugged employees. It consists of an open-air tiki bar, covered by an old sail and complete with a rooftop deck overlooking both protected Little Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. Fresh triggerfish and crawfish are on the menu for lunch, and the rum (and coconut water!) flows freely. In true pioneer spirit, it stands solely independent of state-supplied water and electricity, operating mainly off of solar power.

Past the pub and surrounding the harbor itself – in which were anchored half a dozen sailboats and a couple trawlers – is a collection of homes built in the island style of bright colors and airy porches. It’s a far cry from the bleak-yet-utopian scene that must have greeted Randolph Johnston and a young Pete back in the 50s, but it remains a beautiful little escape from your everyday civilization.

Next door is the Johnston gallery where Pete’s and his father’s works are on display. Some of the items fetch in excess of $50,000.00. They appear to be worth every penny.

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