Interviewed in March of 2016 by Andrew Houle


Hometown: Stoneham, MA

Current town: Salem, MA



1.) Hey there John, so first off thank you for taking the time to discuss all things, Creative Salem! We're thrilled to finally have a chance to share what it is you do here in the pages of Chroma. Let's start at the beginning. We know you’ve called Salem, MA home for quite some time, did you grow up on the North Shore and has New England always been your home?

Thanks Andy, first off.. HONORED to be included amongst some of the movers and shakers in the creative fields, and to be amongst some of my North Shore heroes (you fall into that category). I grew up in Stoneham and I have spent almost all of my life on the North Shore with a brief month or so spent out in Napa Valley (Yes it was wonderful and yes I wanted to stay). Then I had brief stints in Rockport and Woburn before ending up in Salem. 


2.) Early on in your professional career you were deeply invested in the culinary arts. From paying dues in the catering industry as a kitchen manager and wedding chef to years later being an executive chef at one of Salem’s largest and most storied restaurants. At a certain point though, you made the decision to walk away from the cyclical and at times never ending hours of what it requires to run a successful kitchen. What was the inspiration and motivation behind such a huge leap?

Inspiration was complete and total exhaustion as well as the passing of someone close to me. I love cooking. I loved cooking. But the industry in its current state is too much for someone like me (it is too much for most) who have a hard time saying no and setting boundaries. At the end of the day, as cliche as it may sound, it was time. And some personal trauma and tragedy, and my need to clear my head, were the final pushes I needed to take a step back from an industry that I figuratively and literally grew up in. 


3.) Shortly thereafter, you launched your first company, Social Palates. With a new adventurous direction, Social Palates utilized your experience in the culinary industry, and your passion for photography. Looking back, were you ahead of the curve taking a chance on this crazy idea called "social media" and its role within a community?

Interestingly enough... the social media trends and skills that I brought to the table in Salem are one of the reasons I had so much success. However, that was honed a little earlier on in my career when social media REALLY wasn’t on anyone's radar (other than major national corporations). Social media and early adoption of technology was originally just one of my passions. I never remotely thought I could have or make a career out of any of it. I was a chef. What could I possibly do with it? Well, one thing you should know about most small town food services is that marketing tends to fall WAY down the ladder; especially during the pre-iPhone and app landscape that we have now where anyone can create media. Being an amateur photographer (at the time) and seeing some really amazing possibilities for social media as a free marketing tool. I created some really (at the time) cutting edge marketing initiatives. That stuck with me and really pushed me to get better at photography and the basics of graphic design. The creative inside of me that had been pretty much squashed , and after some unnecessary “growing up” had started to poke its head back out beyond the culinary arts. 


4.) We have a profound respect for the arts and for community leaders here at Tryptic Press, and it's safe to say you play a huge role in both departments in Salem, MA. With Social Palates as a foundation, what lead to the inception of "Creative Salem" and how do the two differ?

Social Palates (Not Pilates) was the first step I made that I felt really capitalized on my history as a chef, understanding of food service (palates), and the success I had seen with social media. Also community building as a part of a successful restaurant program (social), and by this time I had fallen in love with Salem. I started “getting out” more to network and enjoy as much of it as I could (spent my first 5 years in Salem buried in a kitchen managing and being a chef at one of the largest and busiest restaurants in town. Fast forward roughly a year… I started bringing more photography into the mix as skills improved. I really started taking a long hard look at the creative scene in Salem, and truthfully I felt excluded. It was like what I was doing didn’t quite fit in the existing model. 

Trying to insert myself in anything and everything “cool” I could find and have some really awesome restaurant clients start asking me to be in more of a consulting/promoter role I started facilitating my own events and really throwing whatever weight I did have behind what seemed like cool initiatives that could make some difference. This started at the big restaurant when I had my chef hat on with building successful and innovative “nights” at the restaurant. This included tying in art shows with open mic nights, inviting the cast of HAIR from Salem Theatre to perform a “pop-up” musical scene right in the middle of a lunch shift and hosting some amazing events including the first Zombie Prom in Salem! As those events gained in popularity (and the fact that we had a killer bar) I started meeting some really amazing and talented creatives. I brought that with me to the table with my new clients and we created Salem’s first hip hop fusion night, live scored silent films, block style parties and more. This was also the time that I started making sure that if someone else was having something awesome, I would make sure that I was there and making sure as many people as possible knew about it. 

Around this time I met and collaborated with a young and hungry entrepreneur that had started a shared working space called Creative Salem and we really hit it off and had similar thoughts and dreams for the scene. As fate would have it, around the time that I was getting kinda frustrated with Social Palates and people's inability to “get it,” he was getting out and taking a job in Boston so it was time for me to take this excellent and apropos name and so what I always wanted to do. Run an organization that supported all aspects of the creative economy, brought pieces of the puzzle together, facilitated creativity and creative endeavors and was a central and thorough source of information on all the cool things happening in and around Salem. Creative Salem was born.


5.) Creative Salem is admittedly a unique and challenging business to describe to those unfamiliar with what you do. Unfortunately, we're gonna ask you to do just that.

How do you describe what YOU do and what Creative Salem is to someone you've never met before?

So at its absolute basic Creative Salem is a platform/organization/ideal created to allow people to create whatever they create and hopefully have it be financially viable. But what goes into that is a multi-headed beast haha. Easiest descriptor would be that we are a Creative Chamber of sorts. 

The creative economy is a vast and mostly difficult to define a section of the overall economy. BUT it is a HUGE part of it and it is the primary reason our society/world is a mostly beautiful place. From the design on the shoes, you are wearing to the app that runs the phone you may be reading this on to the public mural that makes you stop on the way to work or the script/costumes/special effect/acting in the latest episode of Game of Thrones. All creative economy. The first part of our mission to make the creative economy a more visible and profitable model for creatives was making relationships with every level of creative in town. (Get the pieces in place and start the long game) From the curator of the present tense at one of the most prestigious museums on the East Coast to the artist that paints on the back of recycled paint can lids to the music director that wants more classical in town, to the committee for the local Arts Festival, and everything in between. Relationships were formed and the first piece (and this still happens daily) was in place. 

Next... all the pieces needed to be played like a giant board of chess. Who works with who. Who doesn’t? Who needs help. What type of things are we lacking? Do we know people that can do them? If not. We do them ourselves. Over the past few years, we have become the media partner and consult on most major festivals in town, we have thrown countless events when the need arises. When the Salem Theatre needed some engaging programming in their space in between shows we did a pop-up gallery with a community twist, burlesque and worked with them on best practices for marketing and promoting the events they were doing themselves... When the local Cinema decided they wanted to add original programming they reach out to us. When Hawthorne Hotel needed something to break up the winter we hosted the biggest masquerade ball the area has seen. When the Salem Chamber wanted to engage more people at a networking event they brought us in to create a unique and wholly creative joint networking event, when a new business comes into town and they want creative ways to introduce themselves to the community we are there, and when (and this is our favorite, a talented individual just can’t seem to quite make it or get ahead.. we will assist in any way we can...and the list goes on and on. 

Finally… and this is where we are at today… the business model. Because most of the things you read above have been relationship and trust builders with not a lot of monetary exchange. We have teetered back and forth with profit versus non-profit and how to fund this unique, almost chamber-like organization and we will be (if it is not already live depending on when this comes out). We have been working with so many creatives over the past couple years the one thing we don’t want to do is nickel and dime people that don’t have it to begin with. Creative Salem is launching a membership model. This will be a two-tiered program with a SUPER affordable membership for consumers and a special corporate partner program. The personal membership will come packed with savings on art services, local restaurants, great event discounts, early access, creative services from our network of professionals and more.

The greatest part of the membership program is by investing you can watch all year where and what that funding goes towards. You save money and you are helping make the world a more cultured and artistic place. Details on the membership and your way to support the local art/creative scene will be found on our website at In a really interesting way this is a new form of crowdfunding without the headaches that come along with a crowdfunding campaign. The community is funding a healthy creative scene and an organization that supports all the other organizations. For the most part young and old creatives don’t have the money or time to join networking groups so we are actually collecting no money from them as creatives (unless they just want a membership card!) and we are looking to the community and the local businesses to support. It is proven that a healthy arts and culture scene is beneficial to any town or city. For less than the cost of one night out people can support a whole community of creatives.


6.) Let’s go back to your photography for a minute. The imagery that populates Creative Salem's Instagram and Facebook feeds is largely your vision. There is a real beauty amongst Salem’s diversity and the freedom of expression that you have been able to capture. The day-to-day life in every corner of the city maintains a strange consistency with all walks of life that find their way in front of your len. Have these photographs ever found their way onto gallery walls in any art exhibitions?

Once in a GREAT while, I will submit work into galleries. That being said, I am an installation guy and have to be really moved AND have the funding to do it the way I think it should be done. But when all your funding goes back into support everyone else... THANK GOODNESS for social media lol. 

As an example. A couple years ago I was invited to do a show and I had 365 postcards made that collectively told the story of Salem over the course of a year. I shot that much that other than a handful of days I was able to produce the whole show with accurate dates/seasons and time frames. Little did I know how much 365 high-quality postcards were going to cost, let alone how much space that takes up! In addition to that, I also installed canvas panels to contribute to a project called We Are Salem I was in the process of putting together. 

Another example of community as art form We Are Salem was as much a social experiment as it was a community art project. For 365 days I attempted to have a different person take over the Instagram account @we_are_salem really creating a wholly unique and wonderful overview of not only my Salem but everyone else as well. HUGELY popular initiative that I hope to revisit in the near future. 


7.) So from hosting pop-up art shows, workshops, costumed gala's, holiday craft fairs, podcasts, and countless partnerships with businesses and organizations ranging from Cinema Salem to the Peabody Essex Museum; Creative Salem has unequivocally defined itself as the central hub of culture in Salem, MA. Is there anything on the bucket list you would like to pull off as an event planner or a partnership you would love to form that just hasn’t happened yet? Essentially, any dream gig or project that has remained out of reach for you that is still on the to-do list? 

Short list of dreams:

Light and Dark Festival takeover of Pioneer Village and Forest River Beach

Pop up Drive In Movie Theatre at Winter Island Hanger

A Halloween event in Downtown Salem so secretly themed I would have to kill you.  MORE farm to table pops up dinners at unique locations including artists row. A complete podcast network with multiple hosts/shows and much more original content A party right on the Beverly-Salem bridge that would be the catalyst to DRAMATICALLY increase collaborative events and over the bridge partnerships. AND the biggest dream of all. Opening a creative resource center that would give us the tools to really help people beyond what our current constraints are. Rentable dance studio/event space, rental photo studios, rentable recording studios, workshop space with free workshops, higher end workstations, collaborative working space and the event space in the center of it all. 


8.) You've recently rebranded Creative Salem with a great new logo and overhaul. In this line of work, the one constant will undoubtedly be "change". What are the main differences you've seen in your ever evolving brand and business plan?

Number one. We are finally in place that for the most part... If you have an idea and the passion for getting it done… we can facilitate and support it. That has opened up soon much! And it is only getting stronger. 

The difference is the growing truth that “change” will always be a part of it. This has been and will continue to be a very malleable and organic organization which has its ups and downs, but this industry changes every day, and the needs of the individuals are so varied and inconsistent we need to grow and change and shift with the times. 

The toughest part of all this has been growing so quickly in every way but financially. Tt has been a little bit of a mind f$©k but I keep a team around me that is great at grounding and steering when things shift drastically or a tough decision need to be made. The hardest for me… is the word NO needs to be added to the vocabulary more and more. It has taken two years but it is evident that making money to support the organization is way more important than I had hoped it would be. 

That being said, we have changed the tides and can not be hypocritical. We push every day to make sure creatives are getting compensated with more than exposure. We live by that, and it is not easy. It is wonderful seeing things like the Salem Arts Festival (we are on the committee) now paying every single artist that performs, and taking marginally less than most galleries for their portion. Having Creative Salem supporting the festival has opened up some wonderful sponsorships from local businesses that allows us to not only pay the artists, but also keep the festival free! WIN WIN WIN


9.) With such diversity not only in Salem but the greater arts community north of Boston, have you been tempted to expand beyond Salem? Is that a realistic idea or y'know....if it's not broken don't try to fix it?

YES! All sorts of yes. And we have been approached by multiple cities about doing just that. Our model is so unique and effective that people want to know how they can have a Creative (fill in the blank) in there community. The biggest challenge is funding. But a close second to that is politics and misunderstanding. Because we work from the ground up and get the trust and respect of the creatives first, what we do can feel like a threat to some organizations. But we are not a threat. And if an organization does similar to what they think we do… we do something else! I only know of a handful of sites in the whole state that don’t need something like we offer.


10.) Over the years has there been a specific partnership or annual event that has become your favorite? Which one is your baby, and means the most to you? Sorry, you have to pick a favorite….

Coverage wise. I would say it’s a toss up between Salem Arts Festival, and Salem Jazz and Soul Festival. As far as a partnership I adore our Salem Main Streets program and manager and we work on a TON of initiatives together which definitely makes what we do easier. As far as our “baby” any event that we totally stamp as ours really. We don’t do a lot of our own top to bottom but when we do we go all out. In the past year or so. The 3X5 pop-up gallery event, the Labyrinth inspired masquerade ball would probably in the top two! 


11.)  John, while your name is commonly associated with being the head honcho over at Creative Salem HQ, we would be remiss if we didn't take a moment to point out the incredible staff you have worked with over the years. Let's just call this the shameless shoutout section of the interview! Roll call! Who also has shaped Creative Salem over the years and helped to make it what it is today?

I always call us we. Cause it needs to be a WE… 

So many have shaped Creative Salem and inspired/motivated me. From the beginning of it all with Kevin Letourneau, to the current roster of characters. This includes our freelance writer Chris Ricci, the female equivalent of me haha and my go to second shooter/video queen Joey Phoenix, Matt gray who built our podcast studio and is the sounding board to a lot of my crazier ideas and who is also working on an original podcast series for us.  My office mate and social media queen Kati Nalbandian (Kati also curates artwork as part of a service we provide to Serenitee restaurants) but that's where it gets hard to do a roll call. Everyone of the people above wears like 12 hats! AND those are just the day to day peeps. Creative Salem is everyone.. Joey Nicotera of Retonica Lighting, Jim Forrest who wrote the theme song for We Are Salem, Deb Greel the Public Art planner for the City of Salem, Chris Wilson master sound engineer that wrote our podcast theme, Emily Dumas who has done illustration work for us, Andrew Buonfiglio who is working the re-brand with us, Sean Mchugh who painted the public piano for us last year to Steve the Vampire who dresses as Nosferatu for dollar bills on Essex Street to Doneeca Thurston at the Peabody Essex Museum who runs the PEM PM after dark series to the writers and creatives in this very book! ….. and this list could go on and on. We have worked directly with over 200 creatives in the last couple years. It is the collective that makes this something amazing. 


12.) It wouldn't be a proper Creative Salem interview without discussing Halloween. It's in many ways the dark life blood of Salem's economy. That, paired with the tourism centered around the famous witch trials of the late 1600’s. As a resident of Salem and someone who embraces the madness, do you approach Halloween like a four letter word? Or is life (and your work) the most interesting when the streets are blocked off?

As difficult as things are financially for a lot of the creative professionals in this city. Things would be 1000 times harder without the economy that comes in each October. As a photographer, it is like Disney World to a 5-year-old. No matter where you go or which direction you look there is something to see. There will be a coffee table book someday, haha. 

There are those that capitalize on the witch facet but it is so much more than that, and it does truly support our entire infrastructure. And those of us that play the long game know it is an opportunity to try and sell the rest of the year to the world. 


13.) One thing we love asking every artist featured within our pages and especially, in this case, is, can you share with our readers an artist you think the rest of the world should know more about? Anything goes; painter, chef, DJ, poet, dancer? Who ya got?

AH!!! I have an easy answer… everyone I've seen in Chroma so far! Especially since I have collaborated with many of them! BUT for some growth of the “family”, I will say…  I adore the woman that does the social media for the Peabody Essex Museum, Caryn Boehm.  Caryn is always creating amazing programs and mobile art. A little outside the Salem/Beverly purview. Chris Desanty of Desanty productions is an incredible filmmaker. The band Bent Knee is awesome. Jonathan Rummel of Hand Forged Works does things with metal that you have to see to believe. Dan Gilbert does some amazing things with paint cans and old saws. Tim Haigh is re-inventing how people think about foodservice in this area. Ruben Ubiera is crushing the public art scene right now, and was born and raised in Salem. Claudia Paraschiv is changing the world with her affirmative action art tour, and is based right here in Salem. She will be installing her second community art project this coming year which will consist of hundreds of hand-made giant pinwheels made completely by different members of the community. Still a sucker for Bob Packert… man this list could be so long… Pretty much if you’ve ever seen them on Creative Salem I am a fan, haha. 

Also.. I had the opportunity to work closely with Montserrat this year, and pretty much every graduate is amazing. 


14.)  Alright... we saved the hardest question for the very last. If you had to pick the aspect of Salem that means the most to you.....what would it be?

The people… without hesitation. I grew up in a great town, but not one that really had a community. Salem has that in abundance. Salem is my family. And with that comes the things that come in every family: laughter, tears, drama, love, envy, support, and differences. But every time it really really matters…. we come together… we innovate, and in so many ways we work towards even more innovation. It is my dream to be a small part of the surrounding communities becoming innovators in the creative space.