MELISSA BLOCK, host:

John Bisbee makes much of his art out of what most people use to hang it - nails. The Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine is currently exhibiting a retrospective of the sculptor's work. The show is called, "Bright Common Spikes."

Reporter Josh Gleason explains Bisbee's fascination with what the artist calls dumb chunks of steel.

JOSH GLEASON: Call it their 20th anniversary, that's how long John Bisbee and the nail have maintained the romance.

It all started when Bisbee was a student in college raiding abandoned houses for found objects to use in his art.

Mr. JOHN BISBEE (Sculptor): And I came across a house that had been abandoned for years. But it was as if the family had just literally packed their bags and left, because everything was still in the shelves. The bedroom still had the bed made, it was all rotted out. The roof was gone over the bedroom, and at the foot of the bed was a bucket of nails.

And I kicked the bucket and it flipped over 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.

GLEASON: So he went to the hardware store and bought $30 worth of brads. Eventually, he moved up to 1-inch nails, then 2-inch nails, ten-penny nails and 5-inch nails. Bisbee spends so much time steeped in nails and nails alone, that he doesn't really stop and think about what they are anymore.

Mr. BISBEE: I don't say the word nail in my head. When I look at them, they are lines, they are marks. They are just potential, there is the - it's like making a pencil mark, you know, it's just what you would do with that mark.

GLEASON: Over the years, Bisbee has created a surprisingly diverse array of sculptures with the marks — everything from tightly wadded balls of welded brads, to undulating waves of bent nails, to towering brambles of 12-inch spikes. But he's not that into talking about his work. He says if he could talk about the pieces, he wouldn't have to make them.

Mr. BISBEE: I don't know what they are. They're just kind of these rhythms or gestures that I get in my head and then 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.

Ms. SUSAN DANLY (Curator of Contemporary Art, Portland Museum): I think John very much resist the idea that his pieces would look like an object in the real world.

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

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

GLEASON: The Portland Museum has exhibited Bisbee's pieces before. He's also shown at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri; Plane Space, a gallery in New York; and at the Decordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

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

Ms. RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFOE (Director of Curatorial Affairs, Decordova Museum): I just don't know of anyone else really who's used the same material for so many years and continues to come up with inventive ways to work with it.

GLEASON: At his studio in a converted mill building in Brunswick, Maine, Bisbee fires up a small forge and begins roasting its current nail of choice - 12-inch spikes. Once a bunch of them is cheery red, he takes them out one by one, starts twisting them into odd shapes. Then using what he calls his new toy, the pneumatic power hammer, he flattens the nails to about the thickness of a piece of cardboard.

(Soundbite of hammering)

Mr. BISBEE: Everybody should have one of these machines.

GLEASON: This is a new technique for Bisbee. After decades of oxidizing, welding, bending and cutting the nails, he realized he was overlooking the most obvious thing he could do to them.

Mr. BISBEE: I was either falling asleep or coming out of sleep, and it just hit me like a brick: Hammer the nails, hammer the nails. No, I'm not hammering them into anything; 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.

GLEASON: Bisbee has been taking these shadow nails and welding them into lacelike wall pieces…

(Soundbite of welding)

GLEASON: …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.

Ms. BISBEE: I just have so much I can - I'm just getting there now. I mean, the more I learn it myself, the more expansive everything becomes.

GLEASON: Bisbee has his limits cut out for him. The 12-inch spike is the largest commercially available nail. So if he wants to go bigger, he'll have to make them himself.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Gleason.

BLOCK: You can view a gallery of John Bisbee's nail sculptor at npr.org.

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