Interview by Angela Cappetta.
Paul Cutting is a restoration carpenter based in Iowa, with a wisdom that belies his youth. “Why interview a carpenter?” you may ask. Just because Mr. Cutting uses a wood shop instead of a darkroom it doesn’t make his body of work any less documentary. His portfolio happens to be a series of historic cottages that Walker Evans would have been pleased to put in front of his lens.
All of Mr. Cuttings projects faced the bulldozer. He restores and sometimes lives in them. Then he moves onto another. These buildings are tiny museums. The pictures he takes of them aren’t half bad, but they leave you thirsting for more, which he probably knows. That must be why he so fervently photographs them.
Here’s the genius of his art, he gets them for free. Yes, free. Midwestern graciousness, or artists’ ingenuity? Perhaps both.
1) Tell us how you acquired your first prairie house project?
I was totally amazed at what I found. They were everywhere. Some are still lived in– their exteriors covered in siding and the inside plastered– but most are abandoned in varying states of decay. It’s still an incredible rush to find one for the first time. I like the fact that the logs are almost always concealed under plaster. It’s like unwrapping a present.
Most people are pretty reasonable and give them up, realizing they have no practical value in their current state. People are always amazed that I’d simply be given a hundred and fifty year old log house for free.
2) Was it love at first sight?
Absolutely. I get hooked on things and have an impossible time letting go. Back then, people moved across the continent without anything but a few possessions and their ingenuity. The Norwegian-Americans used the full dovetail joint to connect the timbers. This complex compound notch is damn difficult wrap your head around let alone to fashion with a hand axe. My corner of Iowa was settled almost exclusively by Norwegian immigrants. Norwegians have a collective knowledge of log building that extends back a thousand years.
3) Tell us about your training.
I either taught myself or learned from elder craftsmen. Taking a building apart is simple. You just have to assure you’re safe so nothing crushes you. Putting something back together is the hard part. I’ve become very competent at log work. I can hew a tree flat and replicate a dovetail corner notch on instinct.
4) Do you feel more like a curator or an artist?
Equally both. Most professionally preservationists deride this type of work; they claim context and materials are lost in the process. What I practice, is that this perspective fails to consider that these buildings are being razed daily. The landscape of Iowa is being altered by industrial agriculture at an astonishing rate, and to get hung up on context and materials really misses the point. Moving a building and rebuilding it is often the only available option. Move it or lose it.
5) How do you finance each project?
It’s always a struggle. I’ve somehow managed to piece together enough people, enthusiasm, and resources to pull off these installations.
Someone once highlighted my work on their blog. In the comments people assumed I was wealthy, saying it must be nice have money and land. In reality, I wait tables.
6) What does someone do if they want to buy one of your restored houses from you?
I have log house kits stashed away I’m willing to sell, and as always, I consider taking restoration projects if it’s a good fit.
Paul’s work has been shown at the Iowa Statewide Historic Preservation Conference 2012, Inspire(d) Media, Decorah Newspapers, Apartment Therapy, http://www.hytteavisen.no/, Free Cabin Porn, and various blogs.
You can read more about him and see photos of his work at: http://www.troutriverloghouse.com