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The joyful testament of an artist in 'paradise'

By Phyllis TherouxSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 1984

Nassau, Bahamas

IN 1979, Dr. Sukie Miller, a New Yorker vacationing in the Bahamas, bought a painting hanging in a Nassau art gallery. The artist (who signed his cardboard canvas ''Paint by Mr. Amos Ferguson'') was unknown to Dr. Miller. In fact, he was unknown to everyone she questioned when she tried, for the next five years, to track him down.

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''I had given up on finding him alive,'' Dr. Miller recounts. ''But I wondered if he might be lying in an obscure Nassau grave somewhere.''

Last August, again on vacation in the Bahamas, she hired a cab to go on a cemetery check, and she gave Mr. Ferguson's name to the cabdriver. The cabbie didn't seem to need further instructions.

Driving Dr. Miller into the poor ''Over the Hill'' section of Nassau, five minutes from her hotel, he stopped before a tiny frame house sunk behind a jungle of coconut and banana trees.

''This is where Amos Ferguson lives,'' said the driver, ''Dutch'' Dean. ''I'm his best friend.'' In retrospect, he certainly was.

Since that fortunate cab ride, events have moved with uncommon grace and swiftness for Mr. Ferguson, a house painter who climbed down from his ladder into an artist's career about 15 years ago.

Introducing herself to him, Dr. Miller asked the artist if he had any other paintings she might examine. He certainly did. There were hundreds, painted on cardboard with ''Pliolux'' exterior house paint, stacked beneath his bed.

Buying two more paintings, she flew back to New York and invited a Haitian art connoisseur, Ute Stebich, to examine her purchases. Ms. Stebich, who wrote the catalog for the Brooklyn Museum's Haitian art collection, was stunned.

Together, the two women flew back to Nassau, where Ms. Stebich took slide photographs of more paintings and forwarded them to the prestigious Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Conn., to be considered for their African diaspora collection.

''Frankly,'' says Gregory Hedberg, the Wadsworth's curator, ''I expected to glance at the slides and send a short, polite note back to Ute (Stebich) telling her we weren't interested.'' Then Mr. Hedberg looked at the slides and radically reversed himself.

''It was just extraordinary to find an unknown artist of this quality who has been quietly working away with such purity all these years,'' he says.

In March of next year, the Wadsworth is giving Mr. Ferguson a large one-man show. In New York, the Studio Museum of Harlem has reserved its own showing date. Sotheby Parke Bernet would like to auction him as part of a large offering. And on April 4, a large group of American curators, critics, connoisseurs, and journalists attended the first Amos Ferguson Art Show at the posh Ocean Club on Paradise Island.

Paradise Island is Nassau's ''pleasure dome.'' The island, a large, meticulously groomed complex of hotels, casinos, and beaches, is connected to the rest of Nassau by a toll bridge that spans the harbor. Before Dr. Miller unearthed him, Amos Ferguson used to hang his paintings by clothespins and try to sell them among the fruit and conch-shell stalls beneath the bridge.