Few people would ditch their smartphone for a flip phone and then call it an upgrade. That’s just what painter Emilie Stark-Menneg did recently with the encouragement of her partner, sculptor John Bisbee, who insists that his own low-tech, dinged-up flip phone has kept him happily unplugged.
It wasn’t easy. Emilie, who has nearly 5,000 followers on Instagram, has always been a “social media monkey,” says John. But both have found that shutting out worldly distractions during this difficult year and focusing on what’s most important to them—nurturing their own and each other’s creativity in whatever direction it might take—has been deeply satisfying.
For John, that direction has taken a sharp new turn.
For the past 30 years, he has been twisting and bending the common nail into some of the most awe-inspiring linear and sculptural forms, turning heads in the contemporary art world with his bold originality and unique ability to transform the simple metal spike into intricately woven abstract forms as well as recognizable baskets, claw-foot tubs, birds, and more.
But since early spring, just before the pandemic upended the world and everything else, John has swapped out his hammer and welding tools for his harmonica and guitar and taken a deep dive into what had always been an off-season hobby: writing songs and making music.
His artistic motto, “Only Nails, Always Different,” no longer seems relevant—or maybe it’s now more relevant than ever.
“There’s no difference between nail sculpture and a song or a painting or a dance,” he says. “Everything is a nail. It just depends how far you push it.
“I don’t even feel like I’ve stopped working,” he adds.
It’s no wonder. John might have dropped the nails for now, but he’s as prolific as ever. He has already recorded 35 songs with his musician partner, Paul Comaskey—a one-time Grammy winner in his native England—and they’re on track to release an album soon. (Paul was also coowner of Salt Pine Social restaurant in Bath, which closed in September.) John is quick to credit Emilie for helping him find his voice, so to speak. “I feel like a kept man,” he jokes, explaining that her recent painting sales have afforded them both the freedom to blossom creatively.
“His songs are so beautiful, they make me cry,” says his number one fan.
“I front-load every conversation,” John says, “with ‘I’m so f-ing lucky!’”
Emilie hasn’t actually marketed her work in months, and she even backed out of two major shows this year. (“I realized that I needed to work without pressure,” she says.) But her admirers know where to find her, and during the dark days of 2020, they have clamored for her vibrantly colored, exuberant paintings.
When painting in her Brunswick studio, without distractions or demands on her time, Emilie says, she feels “a sense of relaxation and peace and being in the environment that I don’t get anywhere else.”
It shows in her recent work, says John, citing the example of her latest painting—a highly self-expressive collage with a bit of 3-D imagery, entirely constructed with acrylic paint—which he deems her best painting ever. “It’s an astonishingly fresh self-portrait that comes from her newly refurbished experience with herself.”
At first glance, it might seem that her painting and his nail sculptures couldn’t be more different—brilliant bursts of color versus cold grays and silvers, metal versus acrylic, and three-dimensional sculpture versus two-dimensional painting.
But as she nods to sculpture, he is warming up to color. “For the past five to six years,” he says, “I’ve colored my beard, and people on the street would often scream, ‘I love your beard!’ It hit me about a week ago that when I do fire up again, I could add the raw exuberance of color with a bit of auto paint.”
It’s clear that Emilie and John admire and inspire each other while also keeping things light with a big dose of humor and a bit of playful competition, whether they are playing a game (poker, bocce, and croquet are a few favorites) or conversing over dinner.
“Ideas are the currency of cool in this house,” says John, adding with a twinkle in his eye: “Sometimes we even fight over their authorship.
“We have tried to fall into this time wholeheartedly and embrace it profoundly,” he says. Or as Emilie puts it: “We always have to feel like we just climbed the best peak in the world, every day.”