Bisbee Nails It!

January 17th, 2013

It was my father who first introduced me to John Bisbee.  He and John are both artists working in Brunswick Maine.  John is also a professor at Bowdoin College, where my father taught back in the 1970’s.  We were gearing up for IT, the last of three Phish summer festivals at Loring Air Force Base way up north in Maine.  It was spring of 2003.  We were in the practice of commissioning artists to populate the grounds with all manner of expression, and my dad suggested that we bring John up to do his thing.


I called John on the phone and without hesitation he said that he was in, and that he would need 10,000 rolls of masking tape.  “Anything else?” I asked.  “No,” he responded.  I’d learned somewhere along the line that it’s better to not ask lots of questions in these moments, so I told him we’d have the tape waiting for him and to let me know if he needed anything else.


He arrived on site and immediately gravitated toward a grove of trees on the edge of the central gathering area.  Throughout the weekend, he played the role of dictator/court jester/instructor/conductor, simultaneously imposing strict order and encouraging mayhem.  In the end, all 10,000 rolls were gone and the grove of trees had been transformed into a sinewy labyrinth that defies description. Here’s an image of a tape sculpture made on campus with students using only 600 rolls of tape:

That was my first brush with the singular artistic genius of John Bisbee.  What I like most about John is that he is an artist in the purest sense of the word.  Give him the most mundane materials and he will spin them into elegant, organic forms.  For most of his career as a sculptor, John’s material of choice has been the nail, often of the 12” variety.  Cold, hard, sharp, mechanical.  These are the words that come to mind when I think of nails.  But in John’s hands, nails gather together in surprising ways.  Have a look at the dizzying array of images that come up when you query “John Bisbee” in Google Images (John would appreciate the sprinkling of other “John Bisbees” that dot the page): Bisbee Google Images


As we began designing Comal, the original steel windows were an important element that led to the new front façade’s custom steel windows and doors and the matching steel door system at the back façade.  All this steel made me think of John, so I called him up to explore how he might contribute to Comal.  As luck would have it, John had just struck a new vein in his ongoing dialogue with nails: creating a variety of custom glyph-like “brands” from large nails that were used to burn patterns into wood.  Check out this time lapse video of his first large scale piece that takes the form of a mandala.


Using the mandala piece as a reference point, we began plotting a similar piece for Comal.  At that point Comal’s interior design was strong on clean lines and symmetry, so I asked John to imagine a piece that resembled vines – as if the mandala piece was “unwound” into something wilder and more irregular.  John flew out last March and spent a week with his old friend Kyle, who owns Ferrous Studios (more on Kyle later – his fingerprints are all over Comal, from the facades to the exit gate to the stools, table bases, and wood rack).  Kyle generously offered John use of his warehouse shop in Richmond to create the panels that would be assembled into a larger whole at Comal.


While John was working on his piece, Kyle was cooking up a stool design for us that utilized plywood for the seat.  John saw the opportunity to extend the gesture on these stool seats.  So he branded several sheets of plywood that were then cut into stool seats – if you arranged all of our stools in the right way, you could recreate these larger pieces.

It was a memorable week.  Highlights include John improvising “Change Order Blues” with the Ferrous house band, a hilarious margarita-tasting session (John’s first brush with tequila since a summer camp caper gone wrong in 1978) and a late night bocce match at Pizzaiolo using a blood orange for a jack (I won, much to John’s continued dismay).  And at the end of the week John left us his stunning panels to assemble at Comal in his absence, so he has yet to experience the visceral energy of the panels in situ. 

C’mon back to California and visit us John!



Bowdoin Magazine Feature


Boston Globe Feature

Funny NBC TV Video Profile