Something Will Be Revealed


By Josh Bodwell

Photos Courtesy of the Portland Museum of Art

Sculpting in Contradictions: The organic industrial art of John Bisbee

John Bisbee is late.
The windows of Brunswick’s brick-faced Fort Andross Mill sparkle under weak nine-a.m. November sun. The frigid morning air fills with little puffs of breath. In the near distance, the Androscoggin River slips silently by. Somewhere behind the mill’s hulking locked doors, Bisbee’s spike-filled studio sleeps.

bisbee1.jpg“Alright, alright…I’m late. Write it down,” the sculptor calls out as he appears from around the mill’s corner at a quarter-past nine. Bisbee throws his arms up in apology. It’s the first of many sudden proclamations he will make. The next announcement will come about 15 minutes later when he claps his hands together and says, “Great, great. I think that went well. I think we got it.” Bisbee wants to be interviewed and doesn’t. It is Monday morning and he would rather dispense with the talk and get to work, rather get his hands on metal and tools and torches.

John Bisbee is average.

Wearing brown work boots, Carhart jeans, and a bright red flannel shirt, the 42-year-old looks more like a millworker than an artist who has been teaching sculpture at Bowdoin College for the past 12 years. Yet while Bisbee is of average height and build, he is not the sort who disappears in a crowd; he has a way of standing out. Bisbee is eccentric and funny but, when probed, turns serious, articulate, and passionate—he is at once the iconic exemplar and the exact opposite of what you would expect from a sculpture professor.

Bisbee leads the way into the maze-like hallways of Fort Andross Mill and rambles like a schzophrenic tour guide. “There are so many people doing great stuff in this mill. I don’t even know half of them. Oh wait, there’s Rosie,” he says, pointing to a woman in her 60s who is mopping the hallway. “Rosie…oh, Rosie…,” Bisbee croons as Rosie beams. Bisbee stops and hugs her; his deaf dog looks at the pair curiously. “I found my dog, Bonnie, at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennassee,” he continues. “Some [email protected]!#$ abandoned her there,” he says with a tone of disgust.

Bisbee’s bright eyes and close-cropped, pillow-addled hair are countered by a beard of truly biblical proportions, and as he walks and talks he continually strokes the tangled chin hair and twists his long moustachio into Dali-esque twirls. “I shave once a year,” he explains with a smile. “I have 12 years worth of my beards in little bags. You can actually see the beards go from red hair to filled with grey. Someday I’ll put them in an exhibit.”

That same exhibit might also include the video footage Bisbee has been recording every day for the past ten years. “I get every meal I eat, every person I talk to. Everything.” When a doctor from Portland and his wife arrive at 9:30 a.m. to poke around Bisbee’s studio, he trains his tiny digital camera on them. “Okay, okay,” he says, suddenly assuming the role of director, “say your names and tell me why you’re here today.” The couple plays along, smiling and hamming it up.

John Bisbee is a weirdo.

bisbee2.jpgLeading the doctor and his wife through the various studio spaces in which he works, Bisbee talks comically and candidly about his art. “This stuff is wonderfully dumb,” he laughs. But behind the self-depricating banter, it is obvious that Bisbee brings an uncommon vision to the commonplace.

For the last 20 years, Bisbee has been fashioning large, kinetic sculptures out of pounded, welded, twisted, and flattened 12-inch steel nails. In Bisbee’s hands, the hard material reveals its soft edges. Through heat, pressure, and sheer exertion, he imbues the spikes with curves and arcs, turning them from cold, man-made objects into warm, organic forms. There are orbs, coils, nests, and hay bales of the spikes scattered about his studio. Unlike English land-artist and sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who uses actual pieces of nature to accentute the already natural environment, Bisbee takes something cold and man-made and reimagines it as something warm and organic—the effect of his work is as much about his chosen material as it is the finished piece.

If there is a drawback to the cumbersome, beligerent material Bisbee has chosen, it’s the room required to manipulate it. Down behind the mill, Bisbee has filled a small shed with a seven-foot-tall hydraulic hammer and air compressor, which he uses to smash and bend the nails. On the second floor, Bisbee has filled a roughly 1,500-square-foot room with finished sculpture, while on the fourth, there is a claustrophobic welding room he outfitted with a powerful exhaust system, and a sprawling loft space he shares with three other artists.

In that shared studio space, with sunlight pouring through 10-foot-tall windows, the doctor’s wife stares at a roughly four-foot circle constructed from layer upon layer of flattened nails. The piece bristles with energy. “It’s like a contained mess,” she says, shaking her head in admiration.

“Making art out of nails is a complete contradiction to the matrix of the material,” says Bisbee. “The nail doesn’t have to be shackled by its history.”

Nails fell into Bisbee’s life when he was attending Alfred University in the hills of upstate New York. “I used to drive around in my ‘71 Matador and loot the adandoned farmhouses,” he laughs. “I’d collect scraps of metal and rusted machinery for these found-art sculptures I was making.” When Bisbee turned over a five-gallon bucket at one of those farmhouses, a jumble of rust-welded nails tumbled out. Without realizing that he was even looking, Bisbee had found what he had been searching for—a medium far more permanent than the ceramics and glass he had been studying up to that point. “Now,” Bisbee shrugs, “my only job is the nail.”

John Bisbee hogs the spotlight.

“You should really buy something by the sculptor Wade Kavanaugh,” Bisbee insists, as he directs the doctor and his wife away from his own work. “Wade is about to blow up, so you should get to him now.” Kavanaugh is one of the artists Bisbee shares space with, alongside Sam Payne, Kyle Downs, and John Paul Rautio.

Whenever there are too many questions about his work and his process, too many compliments and awe-struck silences, Bisbee turns attention to one of the artists in the tight community he has built around himself. “Write something about Mark Wethli’s full-scale wooden sculpture of a Piper Cub plane,” he blurts out. “Write that down. Mark had that plane downstairs in my gallery, the Coleman Burke Gallery. Write about that. It was amazing.”

John Bisbee is not charasmatic.

“Great. I think that went well,” Bisbee says again. Now he has got the doctor and his wife out back by his giant hydrolic hammer. He has handed out some flattened nails as souveniours. “Okay, that went well,” he says. “We really got it.” Bisbee is saying goodbye without using the word. It is now after 10:30 a.m. and he looks fidgety. His one-man exhibit at the Portland Musuem of Art opens in a few weeks, and he is itching to get to work. The morning is slipping away. “There are just infinite variations,” Bisbee says, as though he needs to defend his obsession with nails. “I’ll stop when they stop,” he says as he toes a pair of long-handled pliers on the ground. Bisbee’s played tour guide long enough. He’s had his coffee and wiped the scraps of an egg sandwich from his beard. He is ready to work, to get the hammer pounding and the steel dust flying.

Creativity, Bisbee tells his students, is not about inspiration—it’s about action.

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