The Dream Life of Nails
by Jane Brox | Photography Trent Bell
Sculptor John Bisbee wrests endless possibilities from bright common spikes
“If you take care of the work, the work will take care of you,” John Bisbee will say, and the certainty in his voice, as much as the words themselves, attests to his belief in the power of art—its necessity and its mystery. He’s spent decades taking care of his work, sculptures he creates out of the apparently solid and practical nail. “The oldest industrial adhesive,” he says. It seems there isn’t anything he hasn’t tried, whether it’s heating nails in a forge and flattening them with a pneumatic hammer or shaping them against a mold. Maybe he’ll bend them into spurs, knots, or curls. The weld itself might become a sculpture. Or bright common nails, two thousand pounds of them, will be stacked in the shape of a gear, or perhaps it’s a sun, held together by gravity and friction alone. If the sculpture is part of his Tons series—the backbone of his work for the past decade—6,800 nails will have been transformed and welded into the final piece. Arc, Plume, Lattice, Cradle—he tests the airy limits of form with one, the life of compaction with another.
He dreams up wall sculptures, too, which hint at brocades, weavings, elemental tables. Nails might ceaselessly morph across a wall in a stop-motion video. Or they might be fashioned into shapes and burned into wood. After decades of such work, he still cannot see an end to the possibilities. “Each sculpture,” Bisbee says, “is a new word for my secret language of form, pattern, and mass.”
The phonemes of that language begin in a small shop on the ground floor of the Fort Andross Mill complex in Brunswick. Just outside his door (which is purposefully barricaded by his Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, a former sheriff’s patrol car), the Androscoggin River courses toward the dam. Inside, the shop is a study in cramped necessity: boxes of bright common nails stacked in the corner, pails of water for cooling nails, twisted tempered nails tossed into piles. What wall space there is holds pencil traces or perhaps the component of a sculpture in progress. Bisbee himself is lodged somewhere between his forge, his anvil, and his pneumatic power hammer, shielded by a welder’s helmet and gloves. In the winter, he’s bundled against the elements, but he goes down to shorts in summer, when he takes it as a matter of course that hot sparks are going to pock his shins. If his protective gear doesn’t form a wall around him, his concentrated energy does. He may raise his helmet and give out a hearty greeting to a visitor, but it’s clear his attention is elsewhere. And, really, he needs to get back to work.
Eventually, he will haul ash cans full of welded components up four floors to an enormous former factory room high above the river, where he’ll work out his imaginings in the open. Here, and elsewhere, the sculptures might evolve, reacting to each space they inhabit. It seems entirely fitting that the remnants of nineteenth-century industry and labor surround him—the windows built for light, the whale oil staining the floor, the stair treads that were worn down by countless workers climbing to their machines—for a Bisbee sculpture is a study in transcendence, in which exactitude and ceaseless work are always in service to the imagination. “The things we used just to get by,” Marshall McLuhan once remarked, “come back as art.”
His sculptures—those that don’t yet reside in museums or private collections throughout the country—wait patiently in a storage room at the mill. Bisbee likes to refer to it as his “factory-seconds showroom.” There, the bright and newly created jostle for their place with those time-pocked with rust. The buoyant and the compressed, the gridded, sinuous, and columnar tug at each other, competing, reverberating, and accumulating a collective force like the profusion of an overgrown field. And yet, there’s true composure in the room, and a sense of earned peace.
Although he now works almost exclusively with the largest nail available, Bisbee began with filament-like brads, welding them into abstract forms as an undergraduate at Alfred University in New York. The nails traveled with him to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in the summer of 1992, then to graduate school in Wichita, Kansas (a program he never finished), and after that to Spokane, Washington. In 1996, he returned to Maine for a half-time position teaching sculpture at Bowdoin College.
In the classroom—his energy no longer contained by the focus of his work—his colleague, Mark Wethli, likens him to a coach who is “constantly haranguing his players to work harder and do more—shutting down the lazy, the outliers, and offenders while giving them a way back into the game, and rallying individuals to exceed their own expectations.” His best hope might be to subvert the presumed courses of their lives, and sometimes he does—more than a few of his students, one an economics major, have gone on to forge a life in the arts.
In the hours when he is not consumed with work or teaching, there’s a good chance that Bisbee can be found hidden away at home in Harpswell. With the sound glinting out the windows, he writes songs or practices with his band, Bright Common, which includes Wethli, artist Cassie Jones, and Anthony Gatti. A Friday night might find him caught up in a game of poker, his voice rising above the general tumult of the game, while he writes down overheard comments in a small yellow notebook designed to withstand the rain, capturing every sparking scrap for a possible song. Bisbee’s seeming nonchalance just may be a calculated part of his plan—distracting others while he measures his chances—and woe, woe to those who play a mincing little game or try to safeguard their small bets.