Nailing It

July 1, 2013

Text by David Corriveau     Photography by Luc Demers

In John Bisbee’s hands something as common as a metal spike becomes a thing of uncommon beauty.

At 200 pounds each, these tumbleweeds need more than a spring breeze to start their journey from this converted factory overlooking Maine’s Androscoggin River to that new federal courthouse in the Arizona desert.

So less than a week before he will fly west to oversee the installation of his current commission, sculptor John Bisbee is cheering on his younger brother, Charlie, and his former Bowdoin College art-student-turned-assistant, Sam Gilbert, while, one by one, they roll eighteen balls of foot-long bright common spikes—all the nails radiating from a metal core—up the ramp of a rental truck, and arrange the balls so they won’t roll en route to Yuma. “It does my body good to see you guys hurting yours,” the forty-eight-year-old Bisbee observes, before adding, “I’m officially old. My body hurts.”

That can happen when you spend most of your adulthood midwifing your brainchildren into one-ton, three-dimensional life by welding, melting, bending, compressing and stretching nails and spikes.

Bisbee settled on that medium while earning his bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Alfred University in New York during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and refined it during a subsequent stint at Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

At least with the pain came gain.

“I can’t think of another artist who has wrestled so many languages of expression from a single motif,” says Bowdoin art professor Mark Wethli, who encouraged Bisbee to apply for a part-time opening as art lecturer at the liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, in the mid-1990s. “In his hands, a twelve-inch nail can be everything from a rigid truss to a wiry strand to a juicy paint stroke of sorts to a branding iron to a fragile flower.”

At the Shelburne Museum in northwest Vermont, director Tom Denenberg keeps a few stems of Bisbee’s fragile flowers—some in full petal, others still shyly closed, all twenty inches longer than the spikes from which Bisbee grew them—on his desk. Through the rest of the spring, and then through summer and fall, Bisbee will cultivate a gardenful as part of this coming January’s inaugural show in the second-floor gallery of the Shelburne’s new Center for Art and Education.

“I wanted to do a contemporary project, with a link to our history here,” Denenberg says, “With our blacksmith shop, I figured there was a resonance there. The way John works with wrought iron and fire, it kind of clicks with what we’re trying to do.”

Denenberg clicked with Bisbee while curating the sculptor’s 2008 retrospective show, “Bright Common Spikes” for Maine’s Portland Museum of Art. “He came in with a box of records and a turntable, and sat in the space for a couple of days, spinning records,” Denenberg recalls. “Then we’d go to a bar and spin ideas. That’s him kind of finding his road map.

“The second week was a mad rush to get it all done. But it was a privilege to get sucked into it. It’s kind of like a hurricane.”

After Skowhegan, Bisbee weathered what he describes as “a long period of beautiful struggle in my mid-twenties and into my thirties,” until he crossed paths with Wethli at the MacDowell art colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in the fall of 1995.

Within the year, the greater-Boston–born and –bred Bisbee found himself coaxing and coaching Bowdoin students to express themselves through the sculpting of bamboo, newspaper, old shoes and whatever other medium worked for them.

And he found a home for his own creative process at Brunswick’s Fort Andross Mill complex. In a tiny, ground-floor workshop, Bisbee reimagines and reincarnates bright common spikes. In a second-floor studio, he keeps pieces still waiting to find an audience. And on the fourth floor of the mill’s west wing, he arranges his exhibits in the wide-open space he shares with fellow artists and acolytes.

“I’ve been blessed,” the wiry, John Brown–bearded Bisbee says. “This Bowdoin thing, it’s like a faucet on the Fountain of Youth. I only teach in the fall semester, so I’m fresh, and I can make art for nine months of the year. It’s the best of both worlds.” •

To see more of John Bisbee’s work, go to

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