GOULDSBORO – John Bisbee is still that crazy guy behind the welding screen who turns foot-long spikes into one-ton mounds of art. But lately, the 45-year-old sculptor from Harpswell has added something new to the public side of his artistic output: songwriting.

Bisbee and his band, Bright Common, recently released their first CD, “Pearl.” It’s a collection of a dozen rock songs that sound something like a cross between Tom Waits and the acoustic side of R.E.M. — gorgeous, meandering guitar-centered songs with lyrical grace.

“For me, songwriting is exactly like the nails, but totally refreshing. I’m discovering tiny bits, and shaping them together and refining them. It’s exactly the same. They are seamless activities,” Bisbee says, strumming the guitar in the band room of the Down East saltwater farm on West Bay, where he is directing a summer-long artist residency sponsored by philanthropist Roxanne Quimby.

Bright Common takes it name from the bright common spike, the type of nail Bisbee favors in his sculptures.

Bisbee is the band’s principal songwriter. His songs are very much like his sculptures: tangible, emotional and full of lyrical twists that delight and surprise.

“The storm roars in from the coast, a line o’ hail and a line from Frost,” he sings on the CD’s second song, “Bird.” “Road forks on up ahead, let’s take the one that’s traveled less.”


He’s been playing the guitar for 15 years, and writing songs for almost as long. When he was 30, he trucked off to Peterborough, N.H., for a residency at the MacDowell Colony. As a gift, his mother and brother — filmmaker and musician Sam Bisbee — gave him a guitar and songbook. “If I’m ever going to learn the guitar, this is it,” he told himself.

Learn he did.

When he departed Peterborough, Bisbee knew enough to sustain his interest in music. Songs soon followed.

Bright Common includes Bisbee’s artist friends Mark Wethli on bass and Cassie Jones on keyboards, along with Anthony Gatti on drums. Other friends, as well as Bisbee’s brother, contribute other instruments and share songwriting credits. Jones, especially, is responsible for much of the music composition.

Wethli, who lured Bisbee to Maine and helped him land a teaching gig at Bowdoin College, has been Bisbee’s musical partner for 14 years.

“John’s songwriting — both his word and music — impresses and surprises me time and again, from the first listen to repeated listens,” Wethli said in an e-mail. “There are songs that we’ll have played and performed many times over, and I’ll suddenly pick up a meaning in the lyrics that I hadn’t heard before.”


Jones, who’s also a visual artist, says she is in awe of Bisbee’s writing abilities.

“I didn’t fully realize it until I tried writing myself, but he is incredibly brave in his writing,” she says. “His songs have this special raw and true quality that I find really moving. He makes it look easy because he is, simply put, always writing songs. Keeping up with him is the most challenging part of being in the band. He comes into every practice with a handful of new amazing songs.”


Bisbee’s gift as an artist is also what makes him a great songwriter, Wethli said: He’s a great listener. Bisbee has a good ear — for language, for the sound and shape of words, for voices, for accents, for cadences and for what Wethli calls “the music of the everyday.”

And yet, Bisbee rarely allows other music into his life.

Nor does he look at art or read books. His goal is to live his life with as little influence from the outside world as possible. “I have a better shot at looking and sounding fresh,” he explains.


Wethli tells a revealing story about the time he tried to introduce his friend to the Tom Waits song “What’s He Building in There.”

Bisbee wouldn’t let him.

“About five seconds in, he shouted ‘Turn that off!’ He could tell the song was too close to something he wanted to find for himself,” Wethli said.

Although he’s deeply committed to songwriting and has a full CD of material ready for the studio this fall, Bisbee harbors no illusions about setting aside his career as a sculptor. He’s more committed now than ever to his art, and is having fun discovering new uses for his nails.

This summer, he has spent his work time preparing for a winter museum show in the Midwest.

“Right now, I’m a welder,” he says, dismissing any idea of abandoning the torch. “I have a day job as a welder. That’s not going to change.”


For 25 years, Bisbee has taken a single idea — the nail — and teased it in every direction his mind has taken him. He intends to continue to impose every iteration of this idea until he has exhausted all possibilities, and there seems to be no end in sight. Lately, he has begun working small again, creating detailed, almost dainty pieces that hang on the wall.

His gift — or curse — is his willingness to stand at the bench with a hammer and torch. Several years ago, Bisbee spent 14 months repeating the same gesture over and over to create a single piece. The factory work process might have broken a lesser man, psychologically or physically. But Bisbee was undeterred.

His obsessive nature drives him. “What fascinates me about art is what one person can do with a single idea,” he says.


That single-minded obsession with the nail is central to Bisbee’s public persona. His music offers perhaps a more honest portrayal of who Bisbee really is, Jones says.

“John can be a showman. He’s always quick to make people laugh and figure them out, but that private, quieter side is always there as well. It’s just that the music is the first time he is really sharing it on a larger scale,” she says.


“That private quality is maybe why I am all the more impressed at his ability to put himself out there in the music. He will try anything, and he can improvise like nobody I’ve ever seen. He writes songs that’ll break your heart in a flash, but you’ll never hear half of them, because we are always moving onto the next.”

Bisbee’s latest obsession is Roxanne Quimby, a Maine philanthropist. Bisbee is helping Quimby establish the Quimby Colony in Portland, and this summer is hosting a group of his Bowdoin students, mostly recent graduates, at Quimby’s saltwater farm in Gouldsboro.

Quimby showed him the property in October. He fell in love with the place right away, and asked if he could take it over for the summer to establish a collaborative art project with his students and a few of their friends.

Bisbee appreciated the shingled old farm buildings, which allow room for large-scale work. Mostly, he craves the isolation and a clutter-free lifestyle. The property includes fields and woods that drift down to the bay, which drains at low tide and reveals bald rocks that glow red in the summer sun.

“My first day here, I saw a snapping turtle the size of a washtub,” he says, walking past a small pond.

A dozen students live here, with Bisbee serving as director, or, as he says, “their spiritual leader on my best days.”


One of the young artists, Jesika Scott of Portland, said Bisbee provides direction and inspiration. “He’s the big brother who already knows how to ride a two-wheeler. He helps us figure it out,” she says.


The students are creating a wide-ranging series of pieces with found objects that will end up in the Coleman Burke gallery spaces in Portland and in Brunswick in September. Bisbee and Wethli co-direct the Coleman Burke galleries.

Bisbee points to his many residencies at MacDowell, as well as to one at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as important moments in his artistic development. With his association with Quimby, he hopes to create similar experiences for others.

“We offer time and space, which are the two most important things” in the creative process, Bisbee says.

The Portland colony, operating at the former Roma restaurant on Congress Street, is hosting chefs and fabric designers. In time, it may also host visual artists and writers.


Bisbee says he is not on Quimby’s payroll, and has been working with her as a volunteer for several months. He’s giving his time because he believes in her vision and mission. In return, he gets the chance to pursue a quieter life as a sculptor-farmer far away from the interruptions that accompany his life in and around Brunswick.

The two met at the wedding of a mutual friend a few years ago. They were seated at the same table.

“It was just like plugging into an ancient companion,” Bisbee says of Quimby. “She is pure blue-sky thinking all the time. Every potential is on the table. She can see around every problem before I knew there even was one.”

He is interested in working with Quimby because she has the resources to bring tangible change to whatever cause she decides to back. It’s not just about giving money away, but about funding projects that deserve support. “She believes in the same things I do. It’s about getting up every day and having fun and hopefully effecting change,” he says.

Quimby, who was not available for an interview for this story, will speak about her vision for the Roma colony at the Portland Regional Chamber’s next “Eggs & Issues” event Sept. 8. It will be the first time she talks publicly about the project.

In an e-mail, she offered this assessment of Bisbee’s work in Gouldsboro: “Naturally inspired by the rural, agrarian surroundings, John’s students have participated in the joys of creation in this most idyllic of Maine summers. It’s a joy to watch it unfold,” she wrote.


Spending the summer on the farm has rejuvenated Bisbee and his approach to his work. While the rest of the group works cooperatively in a large open garage, Bisbee has carved out his own little space. He’s the bedraggled old man in the corner making widgets.

Most important, he’s having fun. He calls this moment in his life — this confluence of art and music and his association with Quimby — “the most exciting thing I’ve done in 10 years. I’m able to spend vast tracks of time alone or playing the guitar. It’s been a wonderful summer, the most vibrant and alive summer since high school.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]


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