“Only nails, always different.” This is John Bisbee’s mantra, after 30 years of working with nails to create sculptures that are industrial, elegant, and strikingly diverse. The sculptor, 50, continues to plumb the depths of his medium with the enthusiasm of a budding artist, and he’s nowhere near exhausting its possibilities.
As a college student, Bisbee quite by accident stumbled upon the material that would become his life’s work. Having previously explored ceramics and glass, Bisbee was “bored and disillusioned,” he says, and had shifted into making “really bad found-object sculptures.” Scavenging in an abandoned house for materials, Bisbee kicked a bucket of rusty nails and found that the nails had rusted together to maintain the bucket shape. “I was, like, ‘This is way better than the crap I’m making.’ ”
Bisbee didn’t necessarily expect to be working with nails decades later, but as long as there are new discoveries to make, he’ll keep hammering away.
“I’m not allowed to repeat myself for any significant length of time,” he says. “It always has to be fresh and wow me on some level, because I get bored very easily. If I’m not chasing some new configuration or verb, I get depressed.” In keeping with this dynamic philosophy, over the years Bisbee has shifted incrementally into larger nails and larger sculptures. For the last decade, his work has focused on 12-inch standard spikes known as “bright common,” the largest commercially available. Bisbee has wrought wonderfully versatile pieces from these spikes: delicate geometric compositions that seem to dance and twirl across the wall; precisely straight, flat spikes that appear perfectly welded together, as if by machine; heaps of spikes that are curvy, almost soft-looking; organic forms that evoke plants and flowers on a grand, industrial scale.
So far, nothing he’s set out to do has completely eluded him. “A nail, like a line, can and will do almost anything,” he explains. “What can’t you draw with a line? The nail is just my line.”
Of course, turning his lines into an actual structure can take some serious tinkering – and welding and hammering and bending. He doesn’t sketch (“I tried drawing as a little boy, and found it humiliating”), preferring “to work things out at the table.”
“Everything I’m working on feels like I don’t quite know if I can get it,” Bisbee says. “That’s the challenge; that’s the shit that keeps you humming.”
These days, Bisbee is grateful to have a small crew to help with these experiments: “my team of handsome athletes,” as he calls them, “who have really blown things open” by handling much of the tedious fabrication work. Many are artists who were students of his at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, where Bisbee is a sculptor in residence. “Having help has allowed me to become the explorer, the researcher again, rather than finding that one idea and then spending half a year chasing just that down,” he says. “It’s fun – I get to take a lot of chances and get better.”
Three decades of these explorations have resulted in a still-growing collection of starts, fidgets, and twists that illustrate Bisbee’s ideas at various stages of realization. In 2000, he showed this library of sorts as “Field,” an exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The pieces continue to grow in size and number, and Bisbee suggests that perhaps he’ll show the expanded “Field” again in another 20 years.
He is, refreshingly, always looking ahead – to his next inspiration, next breakthrough, next great work. “I have to believe everything I make is going to be the best thing I’ve ever made, or I couldn’t really do it,” he says. “And it’s not always the truth – I might hit on every third one, but then you have to make one and two to get to three.”
Bisbee thinks that part of the appeal of his work lies in its abstractness and its accessibility. “My work is easy, in the sense that it’s well made, and it’s comprised of an item that everyone at least has some relationship to, if not a rather elaborate relationship to,” he says.
In 2014, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont showed “New Blooms,” a collection of floral and plant-inspired pieces; SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, is showing a selection of his work through September 13.
And already, Bisbee is working on the logistics of a few new ideas for large-scale (even by his standards) installations, which are “just barely eluding me,” he says.
“You’d think that you would sort of choke off your options and potential, the more you keep excavating a single item,” he says, “but I find it’s the opposite – it explodes. There are so many amazing tangents that I haven’t had time to take; so many great insights that are buried years back, so it’s ever expanding, this mundane object. I’m quite happy saying now that I will only work with nails.”
Based in Oakland, California, Danielle Maestretti is a frequent contributor to American Craft.