By the Mother Earth News editors November/December 1976
ARTIST ON AN ISLAND: RANDOLPH JOHNSTON
Back in the '20's, Canadian sculptor Randolph W. Johnston coined a wordMegamachineto describe a society that swallowed people up and excreted them as look-alike pellets. And it was back then that the young sculptor conjured a dream of being able to leave the Megamachine to live in freedom, alone, on a tropical island.
As it turned out, that dream eventually materialized . . . but only after periods of hardship and hunger, rejection of Johnston's work, and the death of his wife (which left him alone with a tiny daughter).
It wasn't until the early '50's that Johnstonaccompanied by his second wife, Margot (a ceramist), and three little boyswent off to find his long-dreamed-of island in the Abaco group of the Bahamas (at the time, a remote and difficult-to-reach hardship post). To make the move, Johnston left behind a studio and an assistant professorship in art at Smith College in Massachusetts . . . and a growing reputation as an artist (Ran's "Five That Escaped" was bought by the University of Nebraska and was featured in Life magazine).
Hard luck followed close on the Johnstons' heels. Margot and the boys came down with polio, and it was years before Margot regained full use of her arms and legs. The family lived hand to mouth in this period: their art was rejected, and their propertywhich they'd bravely put up for saleremained at home, unsold.
In time, however, the Johnstons scraped together enough cash to buy an Abaco schooner, which served as their home while they cruised in search of a source of income and an island home. Eventually, the family had to be moved ashore to live in a cave so that Ran could farm the only cash crop possible: tourists who'd pay for a week's cruise.
Hurricanes, sand fleas, and other island conditions conspired against the Johnstons as they lived on a diet of fish, sweet potatoes, bananas, and coconuts (all the food they could scrounge from the cruel Bahamian coast). Although he ached to get back to his art, Ran builtstone by stonea home and cistern for his family. Only afterwards did the artist (who was without materials, foundry, or studio) agree to create a sculpture for a passing yachtsman.
Today, Johnstona peaceable, bearded, barefoot, 72-year-old vegetarianlives on the island he dreamed of for so long . . . and, he's finally achieved new recognition as an artist. (His "Afro-Bahamian Woman" was unveiled on Rawson Square in Nassau last year, and this year he has seen the publication of his bookArtist on His Islandby Noyes Press, Mill Rd., Park Ridge, N.J. 07656.) Margot has returned to ceramics, two sons have left the island (one as a journalist, the other as an electrician), and the youngest sonPeterassists his father in smelting in addition to creating bronzes of his own.
Yes, bronzes: Randolph Johnston is one of a handful of sculptors alive today who take their own works from model all the way to finished bronze. Despite the fact that his studio-home at Little Harbor can only be reached by boat, Ran brings in his own ores, engineers his own castings, designs and builds his own furnaces, smelts his own metals, and pours, polishes, and ships completed works out across a sand bar that keeps away boats drawing more than six feet.