Brunswick, Maine, sculptor John Bisbee transforms common carpentry nails into an array of uncommon artwork.
“Seriously, guys, pull your head out of your ass and look at that thing. It’s amazing, isn’t it? The best ever.”
John Bisbee pauses briefly in his work to stare at his latest creation, hung on the wall of his shop in Brunswick, Maine, earlier that day: a 19 × 30 in. steel sheet cutout of the United States, covered with clusters of “Bitsbees”—a play on the digital currency Bitcoin. Made from 12-inch nails that were cut into sections, forge heated, and flattened with a pneumatic hammer into quarter-sized coins, each Bitsbee is then stamped with one of approximately 30 different, nail-related designs. The metalwork, titled American Bits, is one of Bisbee’s first explorations of printing on nails—and his first foray into meta-art. “It’s so weird and shocking,” he says, “like a nail and not a nail. It even occurred to me that a penny is a nail reference: nails come in pennies. So it’s a long journey back to itself.
“I also love the metaphor of America as money. I’m just obsessed with it—the infinite variation. It’s as far as the nails will go.”
For over 30 years, Bisbee has pushed the parameters of the most basic of carpentry elements, the common nail, to create an astonishingly diverse body of artistic works. Employing everything from tiny half-inch brads to 12-inch spikes that could kill a bear, he’s constructed gigantic geometric sculptures that weigh exactly one ton; intricate, mandala-like wall pieces that seem to float in space; and clusters of wildflowers that arc gracefully off the ground, the once-foot-long spikes stretched into delicate stems nearly double their original length, their nailheads flattened and formed into petals in various stages of bloom.
It’s hard to believe that Bisbee’s decades-long obsession with nails was born from happenstance. While a sculpture student at New York’s Alfred University, Bisbee was raiding abandoned houses for materials to use for his art when he came upon a bucket of rusted nails. He kicked the bucket and it flipped over; the nails had oxidized and cohered into a solid, bucket-shaped mass. Bisbee had found his medium.
“It was beautiful,” he recalls. “But honestly, it could have just as easily been a drawer full of clothespins. Or a shoebox full of pennies.”
Bisbee couldn’t foresee that the nail’s simple structure would prove a ceaseless source of artistic inspiration and become the basis for a long and successful career—with a gallery in New York City, solo exhibitions from coast to coast, and sculptures in personal collections as well as the permanent collections of museums including the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
“The nail is a line,” says Bisbee. “How do you run out of things to do with a line? It’s the building block of all language, literally and figuratively.
“I can’t keep up,” he continues. “I’m constantly being torn, from one day to the next, barely able to sleep, about what the new discovery is.”
It’s a particularly crazy afternoon at Bisbee’s shop—a small space jutting off the back of the Fort Andross Mill Complex on the banks of the Androscoggin River—thanks to an idea he had the night before.
“We’ve got 150 members of the Print Council of America coming over to tour the building tonight,” he explains. “I was watching TV last night and freaking out about money with my girl, and that’s when it hit me that we should make a triumphal, commemorative spike that says ‘Print Guild of America’ [the idea is so fresh that he flubs the name], Brunswick, Maine, and today’s date, and then it will be a limited edition on the back.”
Bisbee displays the prototype, which he and his small team had knocked out earlier that day: a 12-inch-long nail—which he calls a spike—whose head has been folded over onto itself in a scroll, the body flattened, and a string of text, including the initials “PCA,” printed down its length. The pointed tip of the nail remains intact and is copied, again in meta-art fashion, in a stamped image higher up the shaft. It looks like a letter opener that might be found on Game of Thrones.
“Every day we’re inventing something new,” he says. “But this is particularly wacky; it’s so specific. This little print association coming, and my clawing need for money on a Friday to make payroll for my team.”
The team—Bisbee calls them his “handsome athletes”—consists of Elijah Ober, Nick Benfey, and Sam Gilbert, all of whom took sculpture classes with Bisbee at nearby Bowdoin College. “He brings his dogs, and it’s a fun atmosphere,” says Gilbert about the experience. “He’s engaging and exuberant, and makes everyone feel really good about themselves for trying and exploring ideas. He was definitely a favorite.”
The shop provides just enough room for Bisbee and his crew to work. Buckets are everywhere. Spikes litter the ground and the central worktable, under which sits a bed for Bisbee’s rescued Puerto Rican street dogs, Wafer and Chica—nicknamed Dr. Wafflehouse and Strange Brains, respectively (in inclement weather, the dogs also take refuge in a rusting squad car that sits parked out front). At the back of the shop hang two shower curtains, one black, one red, closing off a tiny space for welding work. On the opposite wall sit numerous maps of the country that Bisbee’s crafted since the November election. One depicts the United States in simple outline form, dangling from a barbed-wire noose; another features a map made from chain-link of nails, overlaying a primitive American flag; a third uses crossed 12-inch spikes to create a map with a more abstract design.
“They’re really kind of dumb and narrative, and very crafty,” he says, taking a quick break and sipping a “Friday beverage”—aka Maine’s Baxter beer. “I call them ‘Americana.’ It’s the first time that I’ve actually thought about something beyond the work and have had it come up in the work.” His eyes once again alight on American Bits. “God, I love this thing,” he says. “I just want to wax it and roll around in it.”
But Bisbee has other work to finish first—with a looming deadline. “We can definitely make 50,” he says, waiting for some spikes to emerge from the forge. “And we charge like, what, 50 dollars each? That’s a great fucking deal for an heirloom-quality item.” (Bisbee’s large sculptural works can cost tens of thousands of dollars.) He grabs a half-finished spike off the worktable and admires the scroll-like foldover of the nailhead at the top. “It’s so pretty!” he squeals with delight. “It’s so tight! It’s so weird and fun.”
With a scraggly gray beard that he sometimes dyes blue, sometimes red, and an intense, almost manic work style filled with smack talk and absurd exclamations, 52-year-old Bisbee is certainly eccentric in ways that belie his Harvard Square roots. He can be brash, playful, and downright goofy. He yells. He sings. He curses. He belches loudly. “Every day I’m a little weird,” he acknowledges. “I get grumpy and snarky. Bitchy old man kind of douchebag. But hey, I think these are the salad days,” he chortles. “Right, guys?”
“He’s definitely a bundle of energy,” says Suzette McAvoy, executive director of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, which is planning a major exhibition of Bisbee’s work in the summer of 2018. “And he brings that sense of play to his sculpture. I think that he has to constantly be up for the challenge of the type of physically demanding work that he does.”
On his worn blue T-shirt, Bisbee wears a bright-yellow, handmade medal featuring a pair of crossed nails. “It’s the championship of our athletic activities,” he explains. “We usually play spike bucket, where you throw a nail into a bucket. We work very hard. If there aren’t games, it feels abusive.”
It’s a glimpse of the other, softer Bisbee who lives behind the wacky, gruff persona he sports in public, a sweet and somewhat introverted guy who loves his employees. He never lets them work without goggles, gloves, and headphones. He buys them lunch and beer. He encourages their own art-making. His teasing is always tongue-in-cheek, administered with affection.
“He’s an emotionally complex person,” says Gilbert. “He’s very loyal to his friends. And he does care. That’s what made him such a good teacher: he really did care about every student, and wanted to see them succeed.”
Bisbee is no less caring toward animals. One of the earliest tenants at Fort Andross back in 1996, Bisbee lived illegally in the building’s basement, where he rescued and nursed injured birds, mice, and rats. One mouse, named Pepper, lived in his pocket, and was a fixture in his classes for years. “The building offered a lot of opportunities to find unhealthy animals,” says Bisbee. “And doesn’t everybody want to heal and release something? Hopefully themselves.”
As he sits by his hammer, the final commemorative nails printed and cooling in a bucket of water, he calls to one of his dogs. “Oh, Dr. Wafflehouse . . . ” A medium-sized brown mutt with a square, pit-bull-like head runs over and jumps onto Bisbee’s lap. He scratches the dog’s ear with one hand while holding a Baxter in the other. “He’s my little boy,” Bisbee coos. “He knows he’s daddy’s baby boy.”
Bisbee speedwalks down a hallway and charges up four flights of stairs (“It gets your pulse up”) to his studio at the top of the building, which he calls the Gun Club. It’s a quintessential industrial space, with worn wood floors; brick walls; high ceilings; and huge, paned windows overlooking the Androscoggin.
It’s here that he works out his larger pieces and houses them; it’s also where he’ll meet the PCA, now due in an hour. The space is filled with sculptures of varying scale: large, spiky spheres that look like giant Koosh balls; an intricate hanging work that looks more woven than welded, spread across an entire wall; an old metal bucket, sitting on a wooden chair, with nails frothily overflowing its side—a playful homage to his artistic beginnings. Despite the weight of his pieces—or rather, because of it—Bisbee tends to name them airily: Lattice. Cradle. Plume. Arc. Plode.
“The nail’s got its own baggage with it,” he explains. “Machismo. If I take the nail and I do something super-masculine and industrial with it, that’s not a very significant transformation. I want to be pretty with these things. Delicate.”
Bisbee quickly changes the subject, preferring to tout the work of his girlfriend, painter Emilie Stark-Menneg, and the members of his team—all of whom share the cavernous space—than delve deeply into his own. “We all work together,” he says, walking around the studio and pointing out his favorite pieces. “The guys work 50-hour weeks for me, and then make art. That’s an inspiration in and of itself.” Over the last few years, Bisbee has grown increasingly uncomfortable with self-promotion. While he does have a website, he avoids interviews; he also eschews social media. “It’s all about likes,” he says, “and it feels embarrassing. I don’t even check my email anymore; the crew checks it for me. My only input is the New York Times.
“I’m so old now,” he adds. “I’m so blissfully deep in what I do. I’m becoming, even more than I was, a monk. I love it—it’s the best.”
Conscious of the time, Bisbee heads back down to the shop. The initial plan for 50 limited-edition nails has dwindled: first to 30, then 20, with five artist’s proofs for the team. “I think we charge $400,” he says, brushing wax on one of them, “and we sell four.”
“You can use it as your grandkid’s college fund,” he exclaims, with P. T. Barnum–like enthusiasm. “For a mere $650.”
“Okay, they’re $100. Or they’re $50. Or they’re $150.”
All four guys huddle around the worktable, waxing and buffing as the clock winds down. “I need two more beers,” Bisbee hollers. “Then I’ll get over my embarrassment about walking up to strangers and trying to sell them this, like I’m a flower girl at Piccadilly Circus.”
After the team chooses their artist’s proofs, they lay out the 20 finished commemorative nails on the worktable. Bisbee picks up one, then another, admiring small details before bringing them up to his studio space. “It’s a weird-ass, hillbilly business that we’re in, boys,” he says. “But I won’t tell if you won’t.”
Postscript: Bisbee ended up selling 14 of the nails at $100 a pop, and made payroll.
For more images of John Bisbee’s work and studio, visit our subscriber-only gallery of outtakes from our photo shoot.