by Brooke Chilvers
In winter, the hardwood forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains are dead gray. Out of every window, their straight bare tree trunks, unbroken by a single evergreen, might as well be prison bars. There’s not even snow this year to brighten the light. And leaving the outdoor Christmas decorations past January 31 somehow just ain’t right.
So when my childhood pal, Myron, said his favorite place in Paradise was a three-mile-long barrier island in the northern Bahamas off Great Abaco Island, my head started spinning with images of the sunny waters in the bonefishing paintings of Peter Corbin, C.D. Clarke, and John Swan, among others.
I remember one time in December in the failing light of the frigid concrete jungle called New York City—my knee-length puffer coat, scarf, and earmuffs reflecting back to me in the gallery window—the vision of their transparent sundrenched waters filled me with yearning to plunge into their spectrum of Abaco colors. I knew just being there would make me entirely content to be alive.
February found me leaning out the window of Bluff House on Green Turtle Cay, finally seeing Abaco’s gimlet greens and gorgeous blues with my own eyes. The damage from the 2019 Hurricane Dorian is still everywhere dramatic; the pine forests of Great Abaco are gone, probably forever. Yet the folks here sport an optimism that defies disaster. As Mr. Sid, the grocer said: “I’m ninth-generation Bahamian, and I have grandchildren; I have no choice but to rebuild.”
Peter Corbin is well known for his paintings of boreal rivers bearing Atlantic salmon and avid anglers. Corbin, who first fished the Grand Cascapedia in 1972, also early turned his skills to portraying saltwater fishing after meeting tarpon guide Stu Apte at a safari convention in the early 1970s. The expert guide invited the gifted artist to fish the flats of Key West so that Peter could get his saltwater fishing scenes “just right.” Apte also posed for photos with fighting fish and carefully set up shots in different places, with different conditions of light.
Today, Corbin returns to Abaco not only for the grilled grouper sandwiches but also to catch both bonefish and permit. When not casting himself, he is content to wait for the best light for painting, “from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., when the clouds part and the brilliant translucent flats reveal the ghostly bonefish and the mirror reflection of a passing permit.” His favorite time of year in Abaco waters is late spring or October, “when many of the fishermen have returned north. The flats are a little more peaceful then, and the chance for a permit increases.”
From a fisherman’s haven not far from the small airport at Marsh Harbor, its plantation-style main house fringed with bougainvillea and hibiscus, Corbin’s Abaco palette of oils capture a skiff, its guide and angler with cadmium yellow light, cerulean and cobalt blue. His clouds are a progression from pale pinks to brilliant whites against a tinted deep phthalo blue.
Placing the horizon is especially important in Corbin’s saltwater paintings, which also require a substantial vertical to anchor the components. Otherwise “they will tend to either flip or separate into two paintings,” explains the artist. The low-set horizon in Rolling Tarpon brings frank attention to the sky framing the upright casting fishermen. The Promised Land focuses on the flats-fishing foreground by making visible the bonefish swimming to the mangrove and a permit on the other side, while in The Oystercatchers, the ample foreground calls attention to the birds.
Both C.D. Clarke’s grandfather and father were serious smallmouth-bass fishermen. And his mother’s family came with a cottage on New York State’s Canandaigua Lake, the fourth-largest of the Finger Lakes, so the kid was flyfishing by age 12. From then on, the woods and the water kept calling his name, like college sports never did.
The artist in C.D. early acquired the techniques of working on location en plein air, a practice he considers fundamental to the light-imbued Impressionism from which his brush stroke and glow “descended.” Clarke’s work has long been appreciated by Gray’s Sporting Journal, especially by former editor James R. Babb, whose trilogy of fly-fishing stories and essays (Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishin’ Fool) all have inviting covers painted by Clarke.
Clarke’s corner of Abaco also includes the Delphi Lodge, “where the guides know exactly where to look not only for bonefish, but also for the magic light of a bonefish flat that they know will inspire me to set up my easel right there and start painting,” says Clarke.
His favorite time of day to paint is in the afternoon, between about 2:00 and 5:00, “when the light is improving with every minute.” Shadows lengthen, and colors become increasingly richer and deeper. “It’s amazing what the spectrum of color is on a bonefish flat! Turquoise and indigo, of course, but also lovely lavenders and oranges, subtle sage, and desert tans.” And above it all are Clarke’s endlessly changing, endless skies, as in The Marls. “Montana is not the only place with big skies!” he proclaims.
The perfect day, for C.D., is a half day stalking bonefish and an afternoon recording it all over again, in watercolor or oil. “I like standing in the mangroves with the subject right in front of me,” like his two studies, Scaffold Creek and The Ponds. For him, in places like Abaco, the mind and hands of the sportsman and artist are inseparably fused.
After the last round of Jimmy Buffet at the Boomer-filled shack that passes for a bar on Green Turtle Cay—ditch any notions of rum punch or frozen margaritas, but the beers are good and cold—our week in Paradise came too quickly to an end. Myron was right: Already I was missing the conch fritters and farm eggs. Like Peter, C.D., Myron, and nearly everyone we met, we will surely return, because nobody should be left with only Abaco dreams.
Brooke Chilvers wishes to thank C.D. Clarke for his recommendations on cracked conch and grouper fingers, washed down with cold Kalik beer.