A second chance at life leads to a second career

Paul Doherty composes reflective photography from his kayak. —Photo by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty of Vineyard Haven is leading a second life, both figuratively and literally. After receiving a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer in 2013, he moved to the Vineyard to finish out his life surrounded by the ocean. The diagnosis turned out to be inaccurate, but Mr. Doherty decided to make the Vineyard his permanent home.

The successful New York–based actor made a sea change in more ways than one when he gave up his career and focused his creative energy on photography.

This month, Mr. Doherty is the focus of a solo show at Art Space in the lobby of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. The display includes a number of images he took from his kayak, capturing colorful reflections of boats on water.

“I go out at 4:30 or 5 in the morning just as the sun is coming up,” Mr. Doherty says. “The water is at its calmest. There are sailboats and fishing boats. When you’re in a kayak, you’re in a great position to see all this.”

The show, titled “Reflective Abstraction,” features 20 limited-edition prints of photos taken by Mr. Doherty this past summer. The photographer has captured the vivid colors of boats in Vineyard Haven Harbor, heightened by the early-morning light with various shapes distorted by the water into interesting squiggly and drippy forms. Some of the images have the look of an impressionistic painting. Others are studies in shape and color.

“I’ve always loved abstract art,” Mr. Doherty says. “That’s why I was drawing on these images.”

Prior to the latest series, Mr. Doherty focused on beach stones and sea glass for subjects. He used his longstanding love of photography as a form of therapy after moving to the Vineyard two years ago.

At that time, Mr. Doherty was enjoying a prolific career as an actor, with numerous theater and television roles, as well as more than 500 TV commercials and 150 voiceovers to his credit. In 2012, Mr. Doherty was diagnosed with life-threatening hydrocephalus. He underwent successful surgery and continued with his acting career, but three months later a biopsy seemed to reveal a terminal brain tumor.

“I came here to here to finish out my life,” Mr. Doherty says. “I was told I had three months left to live. The doctor told me, ‘Get your life in order. This thing will kill you.’”

Although Mr. Doherty was initially resolved to his fate, he agreed to one last consultation with a specialist from Germany. The incurable brain tumor turned out to be nothing more than scar tissue from the shunt that had been used in his previous treatment. “You should live your life,” the doctor advised when asked what his patient could expect next.

By that point, Mr. Doherty and his spouse David Behnke, a semiretired J.P. Morgan Investment managing director and former professional opera singer, had settled into their new home across from Owen Park in Vineyard Haven. Although he was no longer at risk, Mr. Doherty continued to suffer from severe headaches and vertigo. “I started walking on the beach out of frustration,” says the former actor. “Within a day or two, the migraine headaches stopped. I started walking more and more. I don’t know what the connection was, or why it was so healing to me.”

Inspired by the frequent beach walks, Mr. Doherty started taking pictures of beach stones. “The more pictures I took, the more my headaches started to dissipate,” he says. “Weeks later, the vertigo was gone too.”

The pictures attracted a lot of attention when he posted them on Facebook, and friends encouraged Mr. Doherty to try selling them. For the past two summers, the Vineyard transplant has offered his images — reproduced on cards, coasters, and in a coffee-table book — at the Featherstone Flea Market. In September, Mr. Doherty launched an online store (allthingsvineyard.com). Some of his work can now be found at Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven.

This past summer, Mr. Doherty added kayaking to his exercise/therapy routine. Once again, a meditative practice proved to be the inspiration for a creative form. “I had been noticing the reflections,” he says. “I would stand on the dock some days and I saw these gorgeous reflections. Kayaking made it so much more accessible to me. I could get different angles and different light, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to balance while holding an oar in one hand and a camera in the other. That was the challenge and the fun of it.”

Mr. Doherty, who appeared in a reading at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse this past summer and is a member of the playhouse board, was thrilled when executive director MJ Bruder Munafo offered him a solo show in the lobby art gallery. Although he has been experimenting with photography since the 1980s, this is his first gallery show. He will have another solo exhibit at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in September.

Mr. Doherty has now stored away his kayak for the season, but he has not shied away from water. On New Year’s Day, he took his annual plunge into the sea at Bend in the Road Beach. “It’s such a great feeling,” he says. “It takes all the pressure off your shoulders. You feel like Gumby.” The real benefit, however, is more than physical. “It reminds me that I’m still alive,” Mr. Doherty says. “That’s why I do it.”