John Bisbee at his studio workspace in the Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick. For three decades, Bisbee built sculptures out of nails (and only nails), but during the pandemic, he made an abrupt shift to painting and is now showing his first works at Moss Galleries in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On one wall of John Bisbee’s studio in Brunswick is a painting of a duck holding a guitar. In capital letters, he wrote, “Can I learn to fly twice?”

That question is the one Bisbee is trying to answer. He spent more than 30 years making sculptures out of steel nails – and only nails. During the pandemic, he abandoned not just his singular material but also his entire medium. He turned instead to painting, and the first show of the next phase of his career is now on display at Moss Galleries in Portland.

The shift seems dramatic but reflects his lifelong desire to explore new possibilities in his work. Bisbee took the nail in every direction he could, and then he found a new direction for himself.

“Always be peaking,” said Bisbee, 56. “But as soon as you get to that peak, always be jumping. If there’s no risk, who cares?”

Elizabeth Moss, the gallery owner, has known Bisbee for years and agreed to host a show before she had seen any of the paintings. The opening reception was “wall-to-wall people,” the most she’d ever had at such an event.

“Am I shocked at how skilled he is?” she said. “Yes and no. He’s so brilliant. He’s so knowledgeable. He’s practiced art in some form his whole life. Yes, because he had such a big career in sculpture, but no, because he is creative on so many different planes.”


Bisbee’s mantra used to be “only nails, always different.”

Why nails? (“I’ve answered the question so many times that I’m bored by my own answer,” he said.) It was 1988, and he was looking for inspiration in abandoned houses in New York. He found a bucket of nails that had rusted together into the shape of their container, and that was that. For three decades, he bent nails into sculptures that could be both massive and delicate.

Bisbee sits in his workspace in the Fort Andross Mill among his sculptures made of nails, the only kind of art he made for decades until recently. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bisbee also taught at Bowdoin College for more than 20 years and previously served as art director of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival in Tennessee, where he marshaled teams of artists to create temporary public art projects. He plays guitar and has written songs for and recorded music with Bright Common, his band named for the type of nail he used in his sculptures.

In 2019, Bisbee was hired to help develop an artist residency at a redeveloped shipyard in New Jersey. He took a dozen studio assistants and former students with him to convert a warehouse into an arts center. He called their project The Gardenship, a reference to the Garden State and the site’s former use as a shipyard. By the time he was ready to start making his own work in that space, it was March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic sent them all home.

Bisbee spent his days writing songs, playing his guitar and searching for stones on the beach. He and his partner, Emilie Stark-Menneg, wore onesies around their Harpswell home (his is a blue Care Bear; hers is a dragon). In summer 2021, Bisbee bought a $5 tie-dye kit at Walmart.

“It had 17 little squirt bottles in it, and I filled them with water and just squirted the canvas,” he said. “And that was it, off and running.”


He found a medium that fit the uncertain moment. The sculptures required immense planning and creativity, but Bisbee knew what he wanted them to look like in the end. Not so in painting.

“The paintings strike me much more as only a question,” he said. “I have no idea what they mean. I have no idea what they are.”

Bisbee with his paintings in his Brunswick studio. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Critical to Bisbee’s evolution was his partner. Stark-Menneg is a painter, but often experiments with other mediums, such as performance video and sculpture. (Right now, she is preparing for an upcoming show at Bowdoin in June and growing blood-red nasturtium flowers into a dress that will be incorporated into a future piece.)

“I love thinking about how all different mediums can influence each other,” she said. “It’s not necessarily comfortable. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. I like to be in the zone when I’m working, but it feels like juggling. But I love discovering what I don’t know, then it circles back. How does the painting change with the new information?”

Her expertise in painting was key to Bisbee’s own experiments. He turned to her for technical guidance. Can oils and acrylics mix? How do you prime a canvas? Where do you get a canvas? (He summed it up with one word: “Huh?”)

“I stand at the foothills of her capabilities and her vision,” he said.


John Bisbee, “Birch Song,” 2022, acrylic on canvas, 71 x 66 in Courtesy of Moss Galleries

In his sculptures, Stark-Menneg saw the huge effort needed to create each work and recognized his dedication to creating things. In his paintings, she recognized his whole personality.

“The paintings totally make sense in that they capture this aspect of him that is a colorful, wild way of being in the world,” she said.

Bisbee has worked for years out of the Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick, which has attracted a number of artists and creators. He used to hire a team of studio assistants to help him complete his massive sculptures, and many are still part of his circle even though they are no longer employees. One is Kenny Shapiro, a former student who worked for Bisbee for two years. In 2017, Bisbee came into a Brunswick deli where Shapiro was working for the summer.

“He came in and was like, ‘What are you doing here? Come to my shop after your shift,'” said Shapiro. “He plucked me out of that.”

So Shapiro started working in Bisbee’s studio and learning how to weld. He spent the first three months making small chain links, a task he described as both meditative and physical. The team would break for lunch together every day and play games Bisbee invented. (There was one called spike bucket that was basically cornhole with, unsurprisingly, nails.) In the summer, they ate outside with other artists who worked in the former mill. Bisbee was adamant that the people who worked in his studio should also make time for their own art.

“By the end, it was very collaborative, which was great and unexpected, especially because I was a student in college and he had been relatively successful in Maine for decades,” said Shapiro. “To have my feedback viewed valid, even though it wasn’t always making it into the final product, was a really valuable thing to have at that age.”


Shapiro was among the artists who went with Bisbee to New Jersey. He still keeps his studio for free in the massive space Bisbee shares with multiple artists in the mill, a perk that didn’t end with his job.

“I was excited to see him transition from this period that felt static to something that felt really dynamic and new,” said Shapiro.

Bisbee at his studio workspace in the Fort Andross Mill in Brunswick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On a recent day in the studio, Bisbee had his fingernails painted neon pink and two strings of colorful beads around his neck. On one side of the room are sculptures, complex and monochromatic. There’s a piece on the wall called “Tessellation Phage” that stretches 21 feet wide and 10 feet tall. There are life-size objects made of nails: a bathtub, a stool, a suitcase. On the other side of the room are paintings. They are turquoise, red, neon green, purple. The wall behind them is covered in drips of every color, the remnants of spray paint and splashes.

Bisbee isn’t welding anymore, but he is still playing with texture. In his paintings, he has created different effects with a fishing net and pressed leaves – and nails. He put paint on a wood burning he made with nails and pressed it on a canvas, and the swirling pattern is now a painting. He did the same to a sculpture of a sheep, and the resulting painting is part of the ongoing show at Moss Galleries. The twisted shapes in the paintings on his studio wall are echoes of his previous work.

“It’s still the nail,” he said. “I’m still always steeped in my own vernacular and history.”

John Bisbee, “St. Emilie,” acrylic on canvas, 58 x 48 in Courtesy of Moss Galleries

Moss chose the most narrative paintings in Bisbee’s studio for the show because she felt they told a story about who he is as an artist and a person. Some are portraits of Bisbee: him among the birch trees under a pink moon, him wearing his colorful beads, him in a welding mask. Another is a portrait of “St. Emilie,” which Moss described as “a love letter.”


“There’s an overall effect of grandeur and joy and color from a distance, but then when you get right on top of the pieces, they are just as exciting because he has these textures within the forms that have carried through from his prior work with the steel nails,” said Moss. “I think it really captures the layers of thought and complexity that he’s put into the work.”

“For me, it’s incredibly special to get to work with somebody with such a great career and to be at the threshold of the new adventure in that career,” she added.

Bisbee said he intends to keep discovering where painting can take his art.

“If I ever look back at something and think, that’s so much better than what I’m doing now – whoops,” he said.

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