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Copyright 1998 Bill Swislow
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Unsealed: The Art of the Bottle Cap

Bottle-cap art, long a poor cousin to tramp art, quilting and other established folk crafts, is finally achieving a measure of collectable respectability. Though still a scavenger art whose modest aspirations, rough edges and obscure origins baffle the uninitiated, it is no longer strictly a sideshow inspiring only hard- core aficionados.

The anonymous figures that populated thrift-store shelves so abundantly in the early 1980s have made the jump to antique markets and even the odd corners of design-magazine photo spreads. More recently, the work of Iowa farmhands Clarence and Grace Woolsey has roiled the art and antique world, both in its prodigiousness and in the stunning price appreciation following its 1993 discovery.

Though not yet the stuff of coffee-table books, bottle caps have provided the basis for a quintessentially 20th Century folk art as creators ranging from the Woolseys to anonymous Scouts to Chicago's well-publicized Mr. Imagination have strung and pounded thousands of them into objects in which whimsy is fundamental, functionality optional and art accumulative. The objects, which include baskets, buildings, animals, chains and miniature furniture as well as figures, are strictly Machine Age, with their anatomy of bottle caps (patented in 1892) and clothes-hanger or other wire.

Produced in quantity and, with a few exceptions, anonymously, the most common figures are about a foot high, their wood-block bodies decorated with a grid of incised lines, and sometimes glitter. Their serrated bottle-cap limbs hold a candy dish or ashtray; another tray is nailed to the head. The eyes are thumb-tacks, the ears wire or plastic hoops. The mouth is missing and a nose ring completes the face.

Aesthetically, one of their legs is planted in the mass-production world of tchotchkes and kitsch objects, but the other is in the folk-art universe of hand- built, one-of-a-kind works by untrained, usually unknown, creators. While high-culture urges are absent and pretension would be laughable on the aesthetic cusp where they stand, these figures display a certain charm in their haphazard expressiveness.

Fundamentally silly, they are almost like 3-D projections of cartoon characters, and like some cartoons, some bottle-cap pieces have an edge, making them more like an R. Crumb character than Mickey Mouse. Case in point: figures outfitted with a beer or soda can that reveals genitalia when lifted.

These flasher figures represent a common genre--obvious gag items probably destined for bars or similar venues. Other figures reflect a more idiosyncratic exploration of the form. Thus one artist pasted a photo of Lucille Ball onto a figure's face and gave her a bass fiddle to play. Another fashioned bottle caps into a strand of sausages (or a jump rope, perhaps) for a heavily painted figure to hold. Figures occasionally turn up decked out in clothes, outfitted with a carved face or carved hands, or holding a variety of oddball objects (including a pregnant figure holding a sign reading, "I was brainwashed").

The trial-and-error process of adapting a basically conventional design to a builder's own purposes allows a personal touch to squeeze through the prosaic materials and often-uncertain craftsmanship: in the choice of materials and colors, in how a face is suggested, in how a figure is positioned and decorated. Since departures from the norm most richly reveal the maker's hand, the most primitive figures--the ones with the free-est-form bodies, the wildest mixtures of bottle-cap colors and the most loosely suggested faces--can be especially intriguing. This sets bottle-cap work apart from, say, tramp art, where intricacy and high levels of craftsmanship typically define quality.

Still, there is something of tramp art's accumulative spirit in the striking textures of massed and strung bottle caps, especially in baskets, which reflect a similar mix of decorative and utilitarian impulses. These abstractions of twisting bottle-cap strands, which range from small candle holders to umbrella stands, are a good deal rarer than the figures and tend to display a more ambitious play of form and greater design variation.

They also appear to be older than the figures, which can be reasonably dated mostly to the '50s and '60s. The patina of the baskets and the designs of the caps would seem to put them further back in the century, making them a kind of funky successor to tramp art. Dating bottle-cap art is necessarily imprecise, though. Like tramp art, it is shrouded in anonymity, and it has been the subject of almost no published research.

Occasionally a figure has at least a semi-identifiable origin. One, with the tapered body that is a common alternative to the incised block, is signed "Scouts La Grange Park" and dated 1961. Another three figures of the same design bear stickers showing a likely pre-60s vintage (they give a postal zone) and a Brighton Park, Chicago, address. The Chicago-area locations are no fluke, since the Midwest seems to be the most common source for figures.

A '60s-or-later origin is apparent for a number of pieces because the bottle caps are imprinted with zip codes or lined with plastic rather than cork, both early-60s innovations. The flasher figures' origins are easiest to guess: They are fairly recent and likely to be commercial. One, for example, is stamped with the post office box of a Can Man Co. in St. Louis, while a male and female pair found in Florida are new enough to sport Diet Pepsi's "Uh Huh" slogan on their bodies.

Another piece of the puzzle is the Junior Achievement program, whose stickers show up periodically on bottle-cap material. In the '50s and '60s, trios of adult JA advisers would use catalogs of ideas compiled by the organization to find things for their groups to make and sell, according to JA veterans. The point was to teach young people about business by assisting them in operating one of their own. The products that resulted, which included lamps, cutting boards, coat hangers and other mostly household items as well as bottle-cap figures, were marketed to family members, door to door and at fairs and open houses, according to John Dickinson, a recently retired Junior Achievement executive who said bottle-cap figures and animals were made by JA groups all over the country in the '50s, the '60s and into the '70s.

Where Junior Achievement, or other builders, got the idea to make the figures is unknown, however. Instructions reportedly can be found in magazine articles or craft books, but an extensive search of books, magazines and related publications from the late '40s through the mid-60s turned up only a handful of references to bottle-cap crafts. One mentioned a Wisconsin boy who sold small toy models made from bottle caps and fruit-crate wood to tourists for $1.50 to $3, but none of the articles involved anything similar to stringing caps together to make figures. Whatever written sources existed, they apparently were not in common circulation.

(Almost as obscure as the genesis of the baskets and figures is the exact nature of the figures' imagery. The problem, for some, is a color scheme that often runs to black, in tandem with nose rings and other "primitive" features.)

A rare case in which one of the folk's identity is known is provided by a 1950 article in Profitable Hobbies magazine about Bertha Engele, a seamstress from Downstate Illinois who discovered a sideline when she saw a drugstore janitor dumping a pail of brightly colored old bottle caps. She had the idea of stringing them together to make vases, baskets and other objects. The magazine described her technique in detail, and included a picture of Engele with an elaborate vase that appears to be about three feet tall and that consumed more than 2,500 caps.

She sold her work for $10 to $25, according to the magazine, which noted, "They are things of beauty, and at first glance no one believes that they are constructed from the lowly, discarded beverage bottle cap." As for Engele, she is quoted as saying, "It's hard work, especially on one's hands.... And it takes a lot of effort to keep up the stockpile of bottle caps."

The obsessiveness that facilitates that effort can be seen modestly in the ordinary bowl-bearing figures, with their 80 or 100 caps; more clearly in bottle-cap chains that can stretch 50 feet or more; and even more impressively in Miami's Bottle Cap Inn.

Joe Wiser, a carpenter and disabled veteran, collected some 600,000 bottle caps in the 1930s, according to the catalog for the 1989 art exhibit, A Separate Reality: Florida Eccentrics. He washed and varnished them, nailed them to almost everything in his bar and restaurant and gave birth to the Bottle Cap Inn, which lasted in north Miami into the 1990s.

You don't have to be obscure or folkish to show traces of obsession in this genre. Some of the self-taught Mr. Imagination's small pieces are about the size of the common anonymous figures, but they are more personal and elaborate. He is best known for his paint-brush people and for his larger works, including bottle-cap mirrors, totems and thrones. His massive use of caps--strung, nailed or layered--exploits their structural properties, while his vision has earned him nationwide recognition as well as a recent exhibit at the Terra Museum in Chicago.

The constructions of Clare Graham of Los Angeles are more minimalist than Mr. I's; his wall hangings, about the size and shape of throw rugs, show how suitable a medium caps can be for abstract sculpture. Like Mr. I's large pieces, his baskets and buildings often represent impressive engineering achievements as they explore the caps' formal properties. Graham got interested in bottle caps after finding an old basket at the Rose Bowl swap meet. He started building chains, he says, and then, following the character of the material (the multiplier effect of masses of caps cupped together) evolved into more complex forms.

"It gives a great deal of visual and structural integrity when it's massed. It's really an incredible detailed, dense surface, sort of jewel-like." Graham has worked with pull tabs (he's used 7.5 million, he says) and dominoes, and he is making Towers of Babel with Scrabble tiles and other game pieces.

Rick Ladd's All Seeing EyeBrooklyn-based Rick Ladd--like Graham a trained artist--encrusts furniture and home furnishings with bottle caps for an effect that owes less to bottle-cap figures than to tramp art, which he collects. He says he made his first bottle- cap piece as a substitute when he couldn't find a tramp-art dresser to suit him. He had seen some bottle-cap chains at the time, he says, but not too much else in the genre.

"I started playing with the form, and from there it grew out. It's exuberant and overdone," he says, adding that the process of pounding holes in the thousands of caps he uses "is really meditative."

Substitute money for meditation in the marketplace. The Woolsey work is hot enough that counterfeits appeared within months of the original auction, reportedly made with leftover caps from the estate.

Appreciation has not been so extreme for the anonymous work, though prices have been rising. Plain baskets occasionally dip below $100, but $200 and up is far more common. Bottle-cap chains can be found for as little as $50 in short lengths, but $150 to $500 or more is typical.

As for the bowl-holding figures, from a dollar or two just a few years ago even the most common ones now commonly now fetch $25 and up, whether sold as folk art or '50s kitsch. Bargains can sometimes be found when more unusual figures are priced in that range, with very tall figures, carved faces, exuberant decoration, animal figures or figures holding something other than bowls among the work to look for. The older a piece is and the more it departs from the norm, the more it is likely to be worth a premium, of course. Prices of $150, $200 or more are not unheard-of for especially odd pieces. But at that price buyers should be certain they have a clear understanding of just what constitutes idiosyncratic.

Whatever the value of the work, the notion of bunches of ordinary people toiling away anonymously to produce these absurdist little figures has its appeal, even if it remains a mystery just who was the original artist who decided it made such good sense to string bottle caps on coat hangers, stick them into blocks of wood, put nose rings and earrings on them and have them hold candy dishes or ashtrays.

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