By the time we arrive at the Patriot boat in Oak Bluffs at 4:30 am, the rain is surging from a black sky, the waves are hurling drops of ocean into the air, and the wind — cold for late July — is whipping it all together into a sodden mess. Yann Meersseman begins heaving newspapers into the back of the minivan, and all I can think is, “it must take great love, or great necessity, to do this every day.”
As it turns out, what started as a necessity for Mr. Meersseman, who delivers papers such as The New York Times and The Boston Globe to Island retailers, has grown into a love.
When the economic recession hit, it hit Mr. Meersseman and his wife, Moira Fitzgerald, particularly hard. Mr. Meersseman, once the vice president of a software company, lost his job. Ms. Fitzgerald, an Island architect, watched her projects dwindle until they were almost non-existent.
Opportunities for work were few and far between. Some decent jobs presented themselves on the mainland, but the couple’s hearts broke at the prospect of having to leave the Island. So, in 2008, they settled for the only work they could find on Martha’s Vineyard: a newspaper route.
“At first we thought ‘this is so bad, we’re out of work and now we have to start delivering newspapers?'” Mr. Meersseman said. The job entailed waking up at 3:45 am six days a week, and 2:30 am on Sundays. “We would come home and sleep all day,” he said. And because the large daily papers didn’t break for weekends or holidays, they didn’t break either.
After their circadian rhythms adjusted to the bizarre sleeping schedule (bedtime became 8 pm sharp), Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald saw a silver lining in the clouds when the sun rose each morning. “Once you get used to it, you actually start enjoying it. It’s like you’re alone on the Island, and it’s just beautiful,” Mr. Meersseman elaborated.
Soon, the couple was raving to their friends about the beauty of the Island at the crack of dawn. “I would tell my friends, ‘you’ve got to see this,’ at 5 o’clock in the morning in Chilmark when the sun comes up,” recalled Mr. Meersseman, to which the friends would reply gruffly, “send me a picture.”
The rest is history.
It started with an email list of their closest friends and family, to whom the couple would send a photo each day. The photos were taken with a simple point-and-shoot camera: sunrises, landscapes, boats, livestock, but never people. They were trying to recreate the same feeling of peaceful solitude they experienced on the Island each morning. But that’s not to say the photos didn’t connect with people. It wasn’t long before the original dozen friends began emailing them back, requesting that their friends and family be added to the chain. After only a year, the list had grown so exponentially, it necessitated a website.
In November of 2011, vineyardcolors.com was born. A Facebook page, also Vineyard Colors, followed at the beginning of this year. With the addition of the website, which allows users to sign up for daily photos via email, Mr. Meersseman said “distribution exploded.” The Facebook page, which posts the best photo daily, has already picked up more than 2,600 likes.
The growth was far from over. Not long after the Facebook page launched, Mr. Meersseman said fans of Vineyard Colors began commenting, asking “Can I have a print of this?”
Around the same time, Julian Wise of the new Island Images gallery in Oak Bluffs contacted the couple about their work. They were interested in making prints of their work, and Mr. Wise was interested in selling them. When Island Images opened in early July, it became the first and only gallery on the Island to feature prints by Vineyard Colors. “I’m a big fan,” Mr. Wise said of Vineyard Colors. “I’ve watched their exponential growth via Facebook, and showing their work is a tremendous asset to my business. To top it all off, they’re wonderful people to work with.” [Read more about Julian Wise and Island Images in the story “Art for the Layman.”]
Mr. Meersseman and Ms. Fitzgerald also have notecards of their work at various retailers around the Island, and there’s a small collection of prints at Alley’s Farm Stand. It seems in the art retail world, they’ve already begun to make a name for themselves. And there’s a good reason for branding that name, Vineyard Colors.
“From the beginning I didn’t want to use our names, because there’s two of us,” said Mr. Meersseman, noting how he and his wife have developed a similar photographic style over the years. “But who takes the picture is not important. It’s not about us, it’s about the Island. We’re trying to convey how beautiful this place is.” Even on days like today, when the rain simply won’t stop, and Ms. Fitzgerald is out of work because she broke her ankle, and the van that delivers the Edgartown route breaks down before it’s even left Oak Bluffs.
Sick days are not an option at the last minute, and if someone gets injured, it means hiring a replacement instantly. They do take a yearly vacation — in the winter, of course – when the number of papers and open businesses has decreased. But Mr. Meersseman says they never take a vacation from sending the daily photos to their loyal followers. “One day they’ll be getting pictures from Martha’s Vineyard, and the next, we’re in the south of France,” he said. “It’s a fun surprise.”
“Is there an ultimate worst day in your memory?” I ask Mr. Meersseman. “This is pretty good,” he says, good meaning bad. It’s easy to get fed up sometimes, especially in the winter, when the boat is running late, so he sits on the dock freezing for 45 minutes instead of sleeping in. But he’s learned to focus on the other part of his job, the part where his passion lies. Friends from his former career often ask him, “What are you doing delivering papers?”
Mr. Meersseman said, “It’s hard work, but it’s a lot of fun. When I compare it to what I used to do…well, I don’t have to spend days and days in stupid meetings talking about nothing.
“It’s not really about delivering the papers anymore, its about where we’re going to find a picture,” Mr. Meersseman said. “It gives you a completely different incentive.” He’s already thinking about where he might shoot today. In the rain, it’s tough. People don’t like grey skies, so Mr. Meersseman goes for a close-up, or maybe a horse. “After a couple weeks we thought we had taken pictures of everything,” Mr. Meersseman said. “If you have to come up with a decent picture every day, you’ve got to be creative.” But they keep delivering the photos, along with the papers.
“If you learn to look around you, you can take good pictures every day,” he continued. “And on this island, it’s very easy.”
For images and more information on Vineyard Colors, visits vineyardcolors.com.