John Letourneau personifies the polymath: artist, carpenter and co-founder of Denniston Hill Artist Residency. Since 1999, he has lived in the hamlet of Glen Wild, where he and his neighbors pursue a symbiotic life based on the barter system—something he describes as more like exchanging gifts. At Denniston Hill, Letourneau functions as a kind of caretaker. “I like to make sure everyone is looked after,” he says. “I tend to be sort of an enabler, like a grandmother would be, but I enable my friends’ greatness.”
At his home, across the street from the residency, Letourneau has a couch made from a converted dough box and draped in silky beaver skins. “The beavers are a harvest of mine,” he smiles, flashing two gold teeth. “Three years ago they moved into the wetlands down here and flooded out our growing field, so I found this sweet, old retired teacher who traps beavers and sells fur at auctions.”
The 200 acres of sprawling land Letourneau has amassed include five on which he and a farmer neighbor grow crops. Letourneau works picking vegetables in exchange for free produce for himself and the residents at Denniston Hill. Brett and Sarah of Majestic Farms up the street graze their sheep on his land in return for lamb and pork from the animals they raise. Andy Brennan, the owner of Aaron Burr Cidery, culls apples from Letourneau’s orchards, and that means a couple cases of cider. And for honey, there’s the owner of a local Hasidic camp, who keeps his beehives on Letourneau’s property and guarantees an endless supply. Beyond all this nourishing bounty, Letourneau comes away rich in friendship.
A proficient woodworker with an eye for industrial nuances, Letourneau built his own home, a converted barn that looks straight out of Architectural Digest. Whatever he didn’t make himself, he sourced locally, usually from the derelict barn next door or the old synagogue down the road. He attributes his working style in part to his father. “My dad was really handy and he always had projects going on around the house,” he recalls. “I never worked with him—he was a loner—but I saw walls ripped open and I figured out how things function. I like to do stuff on my own, too. I don’t really want a boss and I don’t like to be a boss.”
Growing up in Rochester, NY, Letourneau learned how to bartend from his parents, who ran a catering place for private parties. He worked as a bartender until age 40, when he transitioned to his current home. “This is the house that alcohol built,” he quips. He has also freelanced as a photographer in New York City. A seemingly innate ability to put people at ease undoubtedly served him well in both jobs. And it continues to play an important part in his life in the Catskills, where the community he’s helped build nourishes him, body and soul.
For more information, visit www.dennistonhill.org.