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Cornered: John Bisbee

John Bisbee (center), with
assistants, at the installation
of his Material Obsession
exhibition. (Photograph by
Donna Dodson.)

John Bisbee (center), with assistants, at the installation of his Material Obsession exhibition. (Photograph by Donna Dodson.)


John Bisbee

Donna Dodson

Beth McLaughlin, Chief Curator of Exhibitions and Collections for the Fuller Craft Museum, described Maine sculptor John Bisbee as “a maker’s maker” who is “audaciously focused on his love affair with nails.” When he was booked for its current exhibition, she had no idea what work he would display. Our mantra for this project has been, ‘In John we trust,’” McLaughlin said.

“We knew what he created would be epic. What I didn’t see coming was the political bent to the installation and the monumental issues being addressed through his work – the current political unrest in this country, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and even the ancient struggle between good and evil as set in the Garden of Eden.”

In mid-December, as his “Material Obsession” exhibition was being installed in Fuller Museum’s gallery space, Bisbee spoke with Artscope’s Donna Dodson about the show, his sculpture-making process and his 30 years of working with nails. Only nails.

WHEN DID YOU BEGIN THE WORK FOR THIS SHOW? A year ago — as soon as I got the call.

DID YOU VISIT THE SPACE AT THE FULLER MUSEUM BEFORE YOU AGREED TO DO THIS SHOW? I did not see the space before I agreed, but certainly did many months before the show.

IS IT A RETROSPECTIVE OR A NEW BODY OF WORK? Spankin’ new babies.

A BIBLICAL ANALOGY SUCH AS THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, ADAM AND EVE AND THE SERPENT REMINDS ME OF OUTSIDER AND FOLK ART, WHICH FOR ME IS IN TUNE WITH THE NAILS PRESENT IN YOUR VOCABULARY. HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOURSELF AS AN ARTIST? Great question! I know I don’t qualify as one, but I have always in some way considered myself to be somewhat of an outsider artist. My exclusive use of common nails and disinterest in art history always makes me feel like I’m a naive maker — especially with this new work at the Fuller, which feels overtly allegorical in its imagery. The work in this show is called “Out of the Garden” and it’s simply a 60-foot viper spraying cosmic venom around the walls of the gallery and a tree of nail fruit called “Fruit of my Roots,” with some of the fruit fallen beneath it. This piece is my anniversary gift to myself, since this is my 30th year of working with only nails, and there are 30 fruits.

HOW MANY NAILS WERE USED IN THIS SHOW? About 3 tons

YOU ALLUDED TO THE SNAKE BITE OR VIPER STRIKE TYING THE WALL PIECE TOGETHER WITH THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE, THE GARDEN OF EDEN. YOU ALSO ALLUDED TO THIS DARK FEELING, REPRESENTING A LESS OPTIMISTIC TIME FOR THE AMERICAN PUBLIC — ARE YOU INTENTIONALLY HITTING A NERVE? The tree is simultaneously evoking our own fall and the optimism that we, too, could regrow our garden. These are perilous times and I’m open to any and all readings of the work, especially if it hits a nerve.

WHAT KIND OF PROCESS GOES INTO MAKING YOUR SCULPTURES? It’s intense. It’s outrageous layers of labor and often failure by myself and the four wonderful members of my crew. I rely on them with increasing intensity, not only as the labor force but more importantly as a collaborative force. They are brilliant and often see tangents that I have not. Plus, we get to have fun. They are all young makers of the highest order.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CRAFT OF YOUR SCULPTURES? Highly technical and yet insignificant, hopefully, to the final piece. We are involved in a high level of craft, and when craft is performed well in service of a work of art it should become somewhat invisible as the work takes on a life of its own.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE CRAFT OF YOUR SCULPTURES? Highly technical and yet insignificant, hopefully, to the final piece. We are involved in a high level of craft, and when craft is performed well in service of a work of art it should become somewhat invisible as the work takes on a life of its own

HOW DO YOU COMPOSE THE FORMS THAT YOU CREATE? The forms come more often than not from a technique or a pattern. Sometimes they determine themselves from the “fractals” that are made in the studio. I bring these component parts to the gallery and install them as loose pieces in concentric nesting gestures that create the final piece.

WHAT ARE THE LOGISTICS OF CREATING, AND INSTALLING, THIS SHOW? The installation is invigorating because we’ve never seen one of the pieces before in its totality. We’ve just had tantalizing glimpses of some of its parts. So we are in a euphoric state of improvisation. Each of us with an impact driver in one hand and a pouch of spikes in the other.

WHAT ARTISTS INSPIRE YOU? WHO DO YOU FOLLOW OR KEEP AN EYE ON FOR YOUR OWN INSPIRATION AND AMBITION? I have to look no further than across my studio to see my ever-creative crew and exuberantly talented partner in love, Emilie Stark-Menneg. Her work is extraordinary and rapturous.

WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND PLANS FOR THE NEXT FIVE YEARS? WHERE DO YOU WANT TO BE IN YOUR CAREER? I’m old enough to know that five years is not very long. I don’t think much, if ever, about my career, because I know that is a by-product of making increasingly awesome art. So for my art I want more and I always want better.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE ABOUT BEING AN ARTIST, THE ART MARKET, RESIDENCIES, ART FAIRS, GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS? My advice for young makers is, first and foremost, congratulations! You have chosen the most expansive life one can undertake. Be proud, work your ass off, and if you can, for the short window of your early process, don’t think about museums, the art market, galleries or fairs. Focus exclusively on trying to find your authentic voice. Do go to residencies and be around other creative sojourners.