First published: Winter 2016
A farm couple with a bottle-cap hoard and time on their hands sounds like the stuff of folk-art legend, and in Clarence (1929–1987) and Grace (1921–1992) Woolsey it was a pretty great one.
They sculpted hundreds of objects with bottle caps in the 1960s and early 1970s, and showed the work briefly before it vanished into the loft of a brother’s barn for over 20 years. After the couple’s death, the hoard (including enough leftover caps to enable the creation of counterfeits using original materials) was sold at a farm auction. Feeding the legend was the sale price and the market-making aftermath. Sold for less than $100, the whole body of work fell into pieces that passed rapidly through a chain of antique and art dealers until what started as a pastime, and initially looked like conventional Americana, came to the market branded as significant folk art.
Jack and Jill with Well, n.d., mixed media and bottle caps, Jack (left) 42 x 26 x 12 ins. / 106 x 66 x 38.4 cm, Jill (right) 38 x 20 x 13 ins. / 96.5 x 50.8 x 33 cm, Well, courtesy Jay Wehnert & Intuitive Eye, Houston
In the Woolseys’ own time, what seemed to most interest the world was the huge number of bottle caps required to create the 400-odd objects that newspaper articles reported in 1971. Volume was the primary theme of an article in the Iowan Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. In fact, what to do with bottle caps used to be a topic of public concern, worthy of news coverage and advice: in World War II, metal shortages sent bottlers scrambling to collect old caps, and that attention continued in the years of increasing post-war abundance.
In the absence of any kind of widespread recycling programmes, people continued to accumulate bottle caps, and there was no end of ideas about what to do with the cork-lined metal disks. Most solutions didn’t go much beyond the suggestions and instructions that appeared regularly in home craft publications, kids’ activity magazines and newspaper craft columns. Picture frames, mud scrapers, table-top figures, baskets, trivets and other objects were all advised, and all produced in quantity by home crafters, as evidenced by vintage merchandise sales on e-commerce sites like eBay and Etsy.
Grace Woolsey, according to her nephew Dale Price, was a hobbyist, and she almost certainly read some of those publications. “She’d kind of sit at the table and mess with things”, he said. Among other endeavors, she made little furniture out of old tin cans, a popular craft activity in the 1950s and 1960s.
Some people thought beyond conventional handicrafts, though: people like Grace and her husband Clarence. Something clicked that took their creativity to a level beyond hobby art – arguably to artistic mastery.
It seems that their intentions at the start were prosaic enough. They told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that one snowy night they decided to figure out what to do with the caps they had collected, and they just started stringing them on wire. The paper reported that their first piece was a church, representational just like the wagons, barns, teepees, mailboxes and other depictive forms they went on to create. Their work in this vein is impressive enough, including one of their masterpieces: a life-sized, highly-realistic bicycle.
Price tells a slightly different, and more intriguing, story. Grace “said she woke up one morning and said, ‘You know I dreamt I made something out of bottle caps.’ Clarence looked at her like she was crazy. She went ahead and took some bottle caps and baling wire. The first thing she made was a little stick figure. She painted it with spray paint. It grew from there… . She talked Clarence into making other stuff.”
Clarence clearly came around. “Clarence had an idea and he knew it would be big some day”, Price said. “Clarence pretty much had the idea of what he wanted to do and how to do it.”
Clarence designed and built the figures, Price recounted, and Grace would decorate them with paint, glitter and other materials. A 1971 article in Cedar Rapids’ The Gazette also credited her with making some of the smaller parts using a pocket knife, and a young Price with helping.