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John Bisbee hammers steel into dark truths

May 9, 2018

Jenny Ibsen
Artist John Bisbee in his fourth-floor studio in Fort Andross. He's preparing for his upcoming solo show at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, American Steel.
John Bisbee has exclusively welded nails for the past 32 years.

“I thought it was just a little phase, and it wasn’t,” said the artist in his riverside Fort Andross workshop, where he has worked since 1996.

His large studio space overlooks the Androscoggin, which is home to myriad sculptures ranging in scale from letters no bigger than a human hand, to floor-to-ceiling geometric structures.

Bisbee, whose thick white beard is tinged a pale green, is a former Bowdoin professor and the first artist to take up residence in the former mill. He works day after day in his workshop, joined by a team of six former students of the College who are all artists in their own rights.

Before beginning his most recent piece, Bisbee had always considered himself to be a strict abstractionist.

“These were objects sealed in their own conceptual juices that didn’t have any larger interaction or interplay or commentary on this wacky world,” he said.

However, since the 2016 presidential election, the artist has been hard at work on a piece that diverges drastically from his past artwork.

Jenny Ibsen

“For the first time in my life, I’m doing basically three things that I have mocked my entire adult creative career: realism, political satire and text,” said Bisbee.

When finished, the piece will fill an entire room at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. The installation’s many elements will eventually form a cohesive narrative centering on America and Trump.

“These are perilous days where people are feeling permission to revert back to terrible tribalisms and ancient hatreds. Quite disgusting,” said Bisbee. “So I’m diving in.”

Bisbee’s piece walks the line between levity and gravity with intention.

“I’m just trying to sucker-punch people with beauty and then kick ‘em in the stomach with some pretty heavy-duty, potentially dark truths,” he said. “But I don’t know what the show is till it’s done. And hopefully even then, I won’t really fully get it.”

Bisbee’s installation will open on June 30 and be on display through October 14. 

Jenny Ibsen
American Steel features realistic imagery, such as oysters, an axe and a bathtub, along with text from Bisbee's carefully crafted alphabets.

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