In the super-charged reality we call our daily lives, few things — and fewer places — still have the capacity to take our breath away.
One of those is a near hidden gem that lies in the heart of The Bahamas and this week, a local artist had an opportunity to capture it as the island’s first artist-in-residence.
His name is Emmanuel Clarke and for the better part of five days he worked alone on the relatively undeveloped island called Big Sampson Cay, his brush strokes on canvas creating a permanent repository of the blues and greens of the waters and land around him.
The idea of an artist-in-residence program originated with Bob and Jeanne Coughlin, second homeowners in Exuma and the developers of a planned $50 million retreat on Big Sampson.
“Many may not be aware, but those who have crossed the path of Bob Coughlin understand he has an unwavering desire to see natural beauty preserved,” explained Eric Carey, former executive director of the Bahamas National Trust. “As residents of the Bahamas the Coughlins have been doing whatever they can to support and help in every way possible with a variety of organizations, including BNT, Trust, Friends of Exuma, Run for Pompey, Tour de Turquoise.”
Tour de Turquoise, the cycling event, raised more than $100,000 for Exuma causes.
Coughlin is the co-founder and president of Friends of Exuma, a 501C3 foundation that provides a means for ex-pats to donate to worthwhile causes and programs in Exuma from scholarships to environmental and cultural preservation. Its major donations to sailing have uplifted the new national sport in the islands where the native sloop regatta was born.
It was at a Paint ‘n Sip event through the Arts Network and Friends of Exuma that the Coughlins first met Clarke. They shared stories of their love for the Exumas, the Coughlins purchased a painting and shared their vision for the gentle footprint, eco-development on Big Sampson Cay.
For Clarke, that accidental meeting was fortuitous. While his family is from Little Exuma, part of his family resided in the U.S. and he spent much of his youth abroad, attending high school in the U.S., college in Chicago area and continuing a post-graduate university program in France.
“The frigid cold, the exact opposite of warm sand, crystal oceans and our beautiful eco-system,” he lamented. “The Bahamas and Exuma kept calling me back. This is my home’.
When he returned, he was determined to corral his training and his travels into capturing on canvas the majesty of the land of his birth. “I was one of the lucky people,” he says. “I always knew what I wanted to do from an early age. I just wanted to design and paint and there is no place more beautiful than right here at home in the Exumas.”
As conversations continued between the artist and what would become the patron of his first residency, the idea was born.
“Let’s have artists take turns, come stay on the island, use this great slice of heaven on earth and allow that to be the muse for one’s talent. This would be such a cool and interesting way to share this with people that will be coming to this retreat, to see the art, be a part of it being created and share it so these works of art will make it around the world as people’s prized possessions as they recount the most
peaceful place on earth they’ve ever been,” said Coughlin.
Clarke was invited to the island with little advice other than ‘paint to your heart’s content.’ He admits the thought of it was “a little scary’ but once he was on Big Sampson, a boat ride of more than 60 miles across the chain of 365 islands and cays, he was so inspired his energy just took over. “I felt alive in every way,” he smiled.
“Picture this, he says, “I would take a walk along the beach at sunrise, explore spots I’d like to set up and study that area to start, eat some breakfast, I would set myself up – paint, easel, canvas, sometimes just start sketching, but always in a place where I could look in all directions and experience all the surroundings.
Then in-between I would go diving in the ocean, go fish off the rocks, eat berries. Space and peace continuously leave room for creativity. It is never ending.”
As his last day of painting on the Big Sampson Cay was wrapping up, he said there was not enough time to paint all he could see. “It was an honour to be the first artist-in-residence at Big Sampson Cay,” he said. “It will provide even more inspiration for artists of every age in the Exuma Arts Network and its camps. When the retreat is built, hopefully, we will be able to bring artists on a regular basis. This is like God’s canvas and I am glad it is going to be protected by someone who has the vision.”