We were lucky to catch up with John Cutrone recently and have shared our conversation below.
John, thanks for joining us, excited to have you contributing your stories and insights. Can you talk to us about a project that’s meant a lot to you?
There have been so many meaningful projects, but some end up having a more lasting impact than expected. This was the case with one of my internships in grad school; it was at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine. It’s the only active Shaker Community left, anywhere. I went there to work with Brother Arnold Hadd to create a book about Deacon James Holmes, who was the first printer at the Community. He lived there in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
The project itself was amazing, and it was one of the best summers of my life. I spent my days researching original documents and Shaker Gift Drawings in the Shaker Library, then writing, setting type, printing, and later binding and even learning about natural dyes. More than this, though, I also learned about the ways of life in a Shaker Community, learnt the Shaker philosophy, and almost got to the point of using their archaic “yea and nay” way of answering questions. It was a transformative time for me, and to this day, more than two decades later, I think of the people at the Community as a second family. It forged a relationship that I really treasure, and still informs so much of my approach to life.
John, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?
I’m John Cutrone, writer, book artist, one of the proprietors of Convivio Bookworks, and the author of the Convivio Book of Days, a literary food & lifestyle blog encouraging folks to live the ceremony of each day through a contemporary approach to seasonal traditions. I’m also the Director of the Jaffe Center for Book Arts at Florida Atlantic University’s Wimberly Library. Like most everything in my life, I fell into these things serendipitously –– I’ve really never set about my life’s course with a plan, but have always just followed my gut and my interests with faith that things will work out. So far, so good.
I think more in terms of connexions, so pride tends to take a back seat in my approach. I do things –– I write, I make things, I teach –– and the things I do I want to do well. Certainly everything I’ve done is built on what I’ve gathered from others, be it through inspiration or an actual transfer of knowledge.
Be that as it may, if Convivio Bookworks is new to you, here’s what I’d really hope would be translated through the experience: that if you’re holding a book or a print I’ve made, that you’ll notice the impression of the type in the paper, how that feels, and that, hopefully, the layout of the page is pleasing to you in a quiet way that just makes you want to look at it longer and dwell for a while. Or if you’re reading something I’ve written, be it an essay or a poem or an email, that you’ll notice the craft and attention gone into the choices of words, and consider that most everything I write has some subtle layer that may not be entirely obvious at first, but is a small, pleasing reward should you find it. And if you’re shopping the things we sell, my hope is that you’ll notice the care we bring to gathering those products: that they are made by the artisans that have made them since time immemorial, in the places where they have traditionally been made, and that they are not some shoddily made knock off made in a factory halfway round the planet from their origins. I really believe in authenticity.
What can society do to ensure an environment that’s helpful to artists and creatives?
Well, I don’t think everyone needs to support artists and creative people. These things are just not important to some people, and that’s fine. There are some folks for whom the bottom line is always going to be what’s most important, and you can’t expect that to ever change. We need people like that just as much as we need people who better appreciate the creative community. And so you target your audience, right? You seek out the people who will support you, and you focus your energy on making what you do as appealing as you can to that audience. And we have to remember, too, that unless you’re getting a free and clear handout from someone like a benefactor, what we’re doing is seeking support on a transactional basis. I feel like it is my job, then, to create a thing or an experience with which people really want to engage. They either want to acquire your work, or read your story, or make a purchase from your pop-up shop at the local streetfair. There’s the creative transaction: an exchange that benefits both parties. I like transactional support like this. It’s big part of the decision making process I use in determining what we sell at conviviobookworks.com. I like helping artisans and other folks who make things feel their creative process is helping them make a living.
Here’s a concrete example of this; something that happened to me earlier today: I was stopped at a traffic light at the corner of 7th Avenue North and Dixie Highway here in Lake Worth. On the street corner was a guy twisting strips of palm fronds, and he walked up to my open window and asked if I could spare some cash. I found two dollar bills in my wallet, and I gave him one, thinking I might need the other one myself. He, in turn, gave me a beautiful flower, made from the palm frond he had been twisting in his hands. He thanked me; I thanked him, and when the light turned green, I drove off smiling. Transactional support.
Are there any resources you wish you knew about earlier in your creative journey?
I wish I had spoken to more people early on, and that’s my advice to younger creative people. Find folks who are doing what interests you, and ask them to tell their stories. Ask them to teach you what they know. The worst that can happen is they say no, and if they do, you move on. But the generous ones understand that they and you are part of a continuum and that sharing what they know helps it move on. I never planned on grad school, but once I discovered the Book Arts, I didn’t know how else to go about learning what I wanted to learn, so I took that formal academic route. The MFA has certainly come in handy, but the best things I learnt were from real artisans in the real world.
- Website: https://conviviobookworks.com
- Instagram: @conviviobookworks
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/conviviobookworks/
- Other: My two online writing projects: The Convivio Book of Days is literary lifestyle blog focused on food and seasonal traditions with contemporary approaches to traditional ways. The Convivio Dispatch is creative nonfiction, mostly about Lake Worth, delivered as emails. The Convivio Book of Days Blog: https://www.conviviobookworks.com/blog/ The Convivio Dispatch from Lake Worth: https://conviviobookworks.com/pages/dispatch.php
Photos by John Cutrone, Seth Thompson, and Michael Dalessandro.