BRUNSWICK — John Bisbee is breaking all of his own rules. He blames Donald Trump.

The sculptor from Brunswick, who opened an exhibition of new work this weekend at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland, generally stays out of politics. It’s not that he keeps his opinions to himself. Bisbee is famously outspoken. But he almost never expresses his opinions in his art.

Until now.

“Trump has forced people of conscience to have to take a side,” Bisbee said, walking among dozens of his sculptures made of welded nails in his top-floor studio at the Fort Andross Mill. “But I don’t think my politics will shock anyone.”

Probably not. He’s liberal.

For the past quarter-century, Bisbee, 53, has built hulking, complex and evocative heavy-metal sculptures, using only constructional nails – bright common spikes, as they’re known. One nail at a time, one upon another, he’s created a body of work distinguished by its unique and focused vision, and has always tested the limits of that vision and his imagination by pushing for new ideas, new uses and new forms. But the work he’s been making since Trump became president is unlike anything he’s done in the past. Instead of abstract forms that make a statement with their grace, bulk and twisted brilliance, much of the work that he made for “American Steel” in Rockland is focused, narrative and literal.


He is making representational forms and objects and using text to help people interpret those objects. Representation and text are two things he vowed never to do as an artist.

He stayed away from realism out of his insecurity to render, and because realism carries with it diminished mystery. For the same reason, he stayed away from text, and because he has dyslexia and isn’t comfortable with words.

A bird in hand: Bisbee holds one of his creations, which he fashions from heavy-duty construction nails.

Trump is responsible for his foray into allegory. This exhibition, his first big museum show in Maine in a decade, is uncomfortable and unsettling, he said, and he finds himself in “a weird, fun and kind of terrifying spot.”

Why terrifying? “I’m not that smart. I never had to be smart. I had to be firm,” he said. “Now I have to be smart, and hopefully funny and dark.”

Bisbee is showing objects that feel evocative beyond their utility and that reflect a national dialogue. Instead of showing individual pieces of art, he’s trying to create an exhibition that tells something of linear story.

“I really feel like I am writing a play,” he said.


A suitcase represents the discussion about immigration. A pistol offers entry into a conversation about gun control – or a game of Russian roulette. And the Russian bear draped in chains goes straight to the Trump-Russia probe. Across the exhibition, there are links of chains waiting for prisoners, locks and fencing, suggesting barriers and jail.

In addition to dozens of new objects that are part of the CMCA exhibition, Bisbee also has fashioned about 10,000 individual letters of the alphabet by welding spikes together. He calls his new font Common, and is using those letters to write poems, phrases and pithy comments that accompany the art. At his studio, he circled his chained-up Russian bear with the words, “Bear witness to this circus dance.”

Alongside a broom, he wrote “This is such a witch hunt.” And next to a sword, he asked, “or is it a quest?!”

He’s made maps of the United States using nails, as well as a magnetic cut-out of the country that he covers with coins made from 12-inch spikes, which he heats and flattens and stamps with unique designs. It’s an interesting piece visually, but is more important in the context of his three-decade career because it represents one of his first attempts to print on a nail.

His use of text is an extension of that printing concept, and his use of coins puts his art, conceptually, in a discussion about the American economy. Bisbee is a welder. He’s in the business of manufacturing and production, and represents the American worker who swings a hammer and uses an anvil in his or her day-to-day trade.

Thus the name of this show, “American Steel.” As arts writer Glenn Adamson notes in his catalog essay, Bisbee made these objects “in a spirit of solidarity with workers of all kinds; each nail expresses the idea of things joined together. Yet the exhibition also has a critical edge. Bisbee uses poetic language, narrative imagery, and potent emblems to express his concern with our country’s direction.”


As such, “American Steel” is Bisbee’s statement on current affairs. Which brings it all back to Trump. “Everyday, we are being forced to think about this country in ways that are troubling,” he said.

And yet, despite it all, he is mostly optimistic. Trump is what he calls “a cracked prism through which I am thinking about America. But America is bigger than Trump. He’s just a phase,” Bisbee said. “I don’t want this show to be a lecture. I want it to be an opening for a larger conversation about what’s happening in America.”

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

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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