Is it something in the air we breathe? Or the light that shines here? Is it literally being an island, floating freely away from the constraints of the mainland? Is there something that is inherently Martha’s Vineyard that fosters the freedom to pursue our other selves — our talents, drives, and passons — our second acts? The fisherman who becomes an oil painter. The investment advisor, a bird watcher. The physician, a novelist. The mechanical engineer turned blacksmith. The dock builder, a poet.
Does it happen more often here? Anecdotally, it seems so. Empirically, who knows? In this occasional series, we will visit the minds and passions of Vineyarders who venture into second acts. And we will try to find out the why behind the what.
Bob Avakian came to Martha’s Vineyard with his then girlfriend, now wife, for a summer job in the ’70s, and simply never left — a familiar Vineyard story. “Even to this day, I don’t know where else I would go. Where else would I want to live?” he says. What began as part-time construction work evolved into Vineyard Construction LLC, one of the premier building companies on the Island, renowned for crafting meticulously constructed, stunning homes, from Edgartown to Chilmark to Aquinnah. A fairy-tale success story.
Of course, there are no fairy tales without dark moments. The bubble burst, literally, with the recession of 2008. Soon after, Bob’s aging aunt and uncle on the mainland needed his help. For the next few years, weekly, sometimes daily, he commuted back and forth to tend to his aunt and uncle, while somehow trying to keep his building business afloat.
“I started going up there a lot, and I was really burning out,” he remembers. But what Bob had was time — time on the boat, time to drive, time to think. Time for another form of expression to develop, so to speak. An early interest in photography was rekindled. Bob would take the first ferry of the day, check on his aunt and uncle, get their groceries, talk to their nurses and doctors, and then find respite in a photography class. Then he’d return on the last ferry. On the way, he saw the change from dark to dawn. On the return, the sunset giving way to night. He watched what the progression of light did to images, and he set out to capture it.
Bob began to shoot what are called long exposures, low-light photographs. At 4 am, as morning breaks through, or at dusk, waiting for darkness, he searches for a shot — a fishing boat in Menemsha, the moon over an open field, the curve of a road to an aging barn. “I walk around. It’s like a walking meditation. You slow down and really start to see things, things you don’t see normally,” Bob says.
He sets up his tripod, and then waits … as the picture evolves: the opposite of snapshots — as long as five or six minutes of exposure. Painting with light.
What began as his personal exploration is now awardwinning, gallery-featured art, displayed from one end of the Island to the other, and off-Island and around the world. The building business came back bigger than ever — his son Derek now runs it — but increasingly Bob has found his heart behind the camera.
Could Bob have found his passion if he lived somewhere else? “If I wasn’t living here, would this have happened? There’s something very quiet about the Vineyard, and very safe,” he says. So Bob can get up in the predawn darkness to find that next elusive image.
“I think my only fear in doing what I do is a skunk. I’m in the middle of the road over by Dutcher’s bridge. And I see a skunk coming … and he starts crossing the bridge, and I’m not moving. And he turns 90° and walks right behind me … and heads toward the fish market. And I get my shot.”
Quiet and safe. That is more than a statement of security; it seems to be a state of mind. Maybe that’s what Martha’s Vineyard gives us. That, and of course, skunks.
Barbara Reynolds is, in her own words, “a lifelong teacher.” In every sense, for more than 30 years, at the Edgartown School, in the classroom, as a reading specialist, teaching English as a second language, tutoring — even mahjong and canasta — and instructing on Zoom during the pandemic.
As a teacher, you have a lot of bosses — principals, administrators, parents, even the students, because without their engagement, you have no job. When Barbara approached retirement, she had no idea what she would do with her time, since she would no longer have a boss or bosses.
The great freedom and perhaps great fear was, Now what do I do, and for whom? Volunteer work? Another job? Work in an Island shop? Or maybe read more, cook more, travel more? Or take photographs?
“I’ve always been the person behind a camera … when my father gave me a little Brownie camera, or with an Instamatic on vacation, taking all the photos of the family,” she says. When spring came, as she’d done many springs before, she wandered out into her backyard to take pictures of her husband’s garden. But now she was drawn a little closer to the flowers, the colors and detail. “I took some pictures of flowers and … bought some ready-made cardstock and some double-stick tape,” and made a card to send to a friend. And then another. And another.
She put a box of photo cards out at her hairdresser’s shop. They sold out, and the hairdresser asked for more. A friend who has a shop in Vineyard Haven displayed them, and they sold out. She didn’t know it at the time, but Barbara Reynolds Photography was born. Islanders and visitors found the photos captured the beauty of the Island with simplicity and grace. From blue hydrangeas to morning seascapes and landscapes, lighthouses, the Cliffs, mist over a golf course, endless rock formations. All images that spoke to the Vineyard. More and more shops asked to carry them. Customers asked for boxed sets. Unlike traditional greeting cards, here the sentiment was the image she’d captured on film, and senders could compose their own message to match the occasion. The images are so evocative, she now sells larger prints for framing.
Barbara knew nothing about business. Or inventory. Or billing. Or shipping. Or seasonal demand. Or even how much to charge. But she learned. In a sense, she went from teacher to student. And best of all, she is her own boss. Barbara reports to Barbara. Where will her photographer’s eye take her? How big will the business get? “The beauty of what I do is … it’s fun. It’s a job because I put a lot of hours into it, but it’s a job where I’m my own boss. I can decide how hard I want to work and how long I want to work.” She says she enjoys not knowing where it might take her. “Who knows? It’s up to me.”
That’s a picture, so to speak, of two Islanders who have found their other selves behind a camera. They approach their art very differently, but they pursue their second acts similarly — to fulfill themselves, their own interests, and their passions. Could it have happened somewhere else? Who knows? But it did happen here, on Martha’s Vineyard.
We invite you to send us thoughts on other Vineyarders who have found their other selves, the next Second Act to feature on these pages. Send ideas to email@example.com.
Jim Dale is a nonfiction writer who has co-authored books on topics ranging from sports to business to medicine to politics, most recently the memoir “We’re Better Than This,” with the late Congressman Elijah Cummings.