Maine Sculptor Forges Art from Nails

The Portland Museum of Art in Maine is currently exhibiting "Bright Common Spikes," the first major retrospective of John Bisbee, a Maine sculptor who, over the course of his career, has made almost all of his art with what most people use to hang it up — nails.

It all started when Bisbee was a student in college. He was raiding abandoned houses for found objects to use in his art when he came upon an old bucket of nails.

"I kicked the bucket and it flipped over," Bisbee recalls, "and the nails had cohered, oxidized — they'd rusted into the bucket shape. And it was just such an obvious thing of beauty — it was so clearly above anything I had ever envisioned making myself. And I sat down on the bed, and I knew that I needed to get some nails."

Bisbee went to the hardware store and bought $30 worth of brads. He would later move to 1-inch nails, then 2-inch nails, ten-penny nails and 5-inch nails.

Over the years, Bisbee has created a surprisingly diverse array of sculptures with the nails — everything from tightly wadded balls of welded brads, to undulating waves of bent nails, to towering brambles of 12-inch spikes. But don't ask him to talk about what it all means.

"I don't know what they are," Bisbee admits. "They're just kind of these rhythms that I get into my head, and into my hands and out into space. And there's just big, dumb chunks of steel. And I say that in the best sense of the word."

'A New Visual Language'

Susan Danly, the curator of contemporary art at the Portland Museum, says she's sure Bisbee sees his art as more than just dumb chunks of steel.

"He likes to think of himself as inventing a new visual language," Danly explains. "One of his works is called 'Synapse.' I think that's how he views his work, as that thing that gets you from the wonder of the nails and how they're formed into things, into working it out in your own brain what it all means."

In addition to the Portland Museum, Bisbee's work has been shown at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.; Plane Space, a gallery in New York; and Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Mass.

Rachel Rosenfield Lafoe, the director of curatorial affairs at the Decordova Museum, says Bisbee's ability to keep creating such a variety of forms from nails alone makes him one of the most interesting sculptors working today.

"I just don't know of anyone else who's used the same material for so many years and continues to come up with inventive ways to work with it," Rosenfield Lafoe says.

'Hammer the Nails'

Back at his studio in Brunswick, Maine, Bisbee recently discovered a new direction to take his art; after decades of oxidizing, welding, bending and cutting, he realized that he was overlooking the most obvious thing he could do with nails:

"I was either falling asleep or coming out of sleep, and it hit me like a brick: Hammer the nails, hammer the nails," Bisbee says.

So Bisbee started a project involving 12-inch spikes and his new toy, a pneumatic power hammer, which he uses to flatten the nails to about the thickness of a piece of cardboard.

"I'm not hammering them into anything," Bisbee explains. "I'm hammering them into themselves. It's still a nail, it's still a 12-inch spike, but they're not round anymore, they're not useful anymore. They're like shadows of themselves."

Bisbee has been taking these shadow nails and welding them into lacelike wall pieces or arranging them into piles. It's a process that has opened up new terrain for the artist who says he'll probably be working with nails for at least another decade or so.

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