Nail Man John Bisbee Brings Contemporary Art to the Shelburne Museum | Live Culture

Nail Man John Bisbee Brings Contemporary Art to the Shelburne Museum

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Since construction began on the Pizzagalli Center for Arts and Education, excitement built about having a venue open year-round at the Shelburne Museum — and one that would enable the beloved folk art institution to exhibit current work in a state-of-the-art gallery.

So it's apropos somehow that an artist whose medium is building nails is the Pizzagalli's first contemporary artist (the venue opened last fall with an exhibition from the permanent collection). His medium is also in a line historically with the museum's collection of metal pieces, not to mention the blacksmith shop.

Maine sculptor and longtime Bowdoin College art prof John Bisbee (pictured right at his exhibit installation) employs foot-long nails — they're called Bright Common nails, I learned — to create both wall-mounted and freestanding works. Despite their heft and scale, they are graceful and elegant — and yet playful.

I'll be reviewing the show, "New Blooms," which opens this Saturday, in Seven Days at a later date, but wanted to note what fun my sneak preview last week was — both because the show was a revelation and seeing it come together even more so, and because its creator is, as museum director Tom Denenberg calls him, a "hurricane." In a good way.

Bisbee is warm, engaging, funny, direct and unconventional. No cooler-than-thou vibe here. His kinetic energy and enthusiasm is contagious; It was clear that he had charmed the socks off the museum staff, and kept his own crew — a mixture of students from Maine and relatives from Vermont — on task with wit, good cheer and a lot of positive reinforcement.

The ability to make everyone feel good while working hard is a gift, but no more so than Bisbee's way with nails. If it sounds simplistic to work with just one material, it is — and it isn't. You try inventing a polygonous form from welded steel nails whose sides resemble flowers and you'll see. Never mind then arranging dozens of these floral forms into a wall sculpture ("Floresco") that looks different from every angle.

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Bisbee is actually from Vermont and has loads of relatives — "Chittenden County is littered with Bisbees," as Denenberg puts it. "And they're all interesting, creative people. And very shaggy."

But that's not Bisbee's only connection. Denenberg was previously a deputy director and chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art and knew Bisbee well. "We did an exhibit together probably five years ago," he says. "When we finished up we said, 'Let's do part two someday.'"

Neither man could have known at the time that "part two" would come in a different venue, a different state. But Denenberg couldn't be more pleased.

"This is a very mature show, really terrific," he says. "The thing that really draws me to John's work, he's the guy who made it explicit to me that creativity is hard work," Denenberg adds. "You come up with some simple idea — bending a nail — and then you bend 10,000 of them."

Whether you're a fan of contemporary art, a fan of the Shelburne Museum, or just want to see what the fuss is all about, you should go see "New Blooms." The space and Bisbee's work in it represent a new chapter, not just for the museum but for the northern Vermont art scene.

A reception for "New Blooms" is this Friday, January 17, 7-9 p.m.

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