Update: The Woolsey bunny figure sold for $9,700.
What you see: A Woolsey bunny figure, created from wood and bottle caps between the 1960s and 1980s by Clarence and Grace Woolsey. Slotin Folk Art Auction estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
The expert: Steve Slotin of Slotin Folk Art Auction in Buford, Georgia.
Who were Clarence and Grace Woolsey? They were farmers in Iowa, very rural, isolated, and living off the land. They had cattle and crops and that was it. Though they came from families that had lots of kids, they had no children.
Where did they get the idea to make art out of bottle caps? They were children of the Great Depression, raised in a time when people made arts and crafts from discarded items. During World War II, bottle caps were gathered for metal drives. After the war, they were still collected. The Woolseys collected bottle caps and the townsfolk helped them. They first made a little church out of bottle caps, to resemble the one they went to. Then Grace encouraged Clarence to make bodies [wooden structures] to attach the bottle caps to. He didn’t have power tools–just jigsaws and pocket knives. He started making fanciful figures, and she would decorate them.
And that’s how they divided the labor–he built the frameworks, and she added the bottle caps? He would whittle the solid wood structure. She applied the caps. The caps were nailed into the structures or she’d punch holes in the caps and string them on wires.
How prolific were the Woolseys? They made about 400 pieces. Out of that 400, a lot are teepees, churches, and wagons, but it was the figures that captured the imagination. Some call them bears, or bunnies, or aliens, though they’re not really bears or bunnies or aliens. They’re totally original, not like anything anyone has seen or done before.
So other people made things out of bottle caps, but there’s everyone else, and then there’s the Woolseys? In the folk art world, you’ll come across bottle cap baskets and snakes. The Woolseys took that idea and went to a whole different stratosphere with their art. They took the craft and made it into a personal art form.
Grace Woolsey was the one who fostered the idea? She was the one who originally said “Let’s do something”. They were in Iowa, and they didn’t even have working heat. In winter, they’d be snowed in for weeks at a time. That’s when they started making things from bottle caps. From there, it blossomed into an art form. They took something other people would have thrown away and made something beautiful and original out of it.
After a while, the Woolseys launched a tourist attraction that they called the Caparena. What was that? Clarence did rodeos and circuses when he was younger. The Caparena was a cross between a circus and a rodeo, but with bottlecaps. It was a whole environment he set up. You’d spend 25 cents to see it, but it didn’t get many visitors. This was a period when the cattle in the area outnumbered the people. Clarence got sick after he put the Caparena together. It wasn’t up for very long when he was no longer able to take care of it. The figures were put in his brother-in-law’s barn.
Where was Grace Woolsey during all of this? The Caparena was their idea, but Clarence got sick, and then she got sick. They died within a year of each other in the late 1980s. The figures stayed in the brother-in-law’s barn for years.
How was the cache of bottle cap art rediscovered? After it went into the barn, it disappeared, and no one paid it any mind. Then the brother-in-law moved or left and everything in the barn was sold in 1993. One guy bought all the art for $100. It hit the folk art market and things snowballed quickly. Other folk art dealers and antique dealers–everyone who saw them–fell in love with them.
You said earlier that the Woolseys made about 400 pieces. How many of those are bunny figures? Do we have a count? No, but in 30 years, I’ve sold a total of 32 Woolseys. Of those, 16 were bunny figures.
Do we know how many bottle caps went into this Woolsey bunny figure? There’s a couple of thousand on this piece.
Can we say how much work this Woolsey bunny figure represents? We can only guess at all the time they put into building a thing like this. They had no TV, and they had their evenings free. Whatever time was available was spent on this.
Was this Woolsey bunny figure part of the Caparena? Do any period photos of the Caparena survive? I don’t believe there were any photos of the Caparena installation, so it’s hard to know if this piece was exhibited. I’m inclined to believe that all of the pieces they created were displayed.
What role does Tom van Deest, whose name appears in the provenance for this Woolsey bunny figure, play in the story of the Woolseys? Is he the person who paid $100 for the whole group of works at the 1993 sale? I don’t know if he bought them or was responsible for buying them from the person who got them, but he was in on it very early. He did follow-up research and tried to learn more about them so the story wasn’t lost. He was very important to getting the word out.
What is this Woolsey bunny figure like in person? What aspects or details don’t come across on camera? You don’t get the details–all the work that goes into stringing every bottle cap to make circles around the arms, the legs, the body. It’s very fun-looking, very enjoyable. You see it and it makes you happy. It really has a personality to it.
The Woolsey bunny figure’s face is engaging… It’s got eyes, and a little button nose, but no mouth. It also has short, stubby arms and protruding ears. It’s really cute.
What’s your favorite detail of the Woolsey bunny figure? By far, it’s the antenna, or the rabbit ears, on top of the head. It’s hilarious. The whole face is fun and it’s kind of alien-looking.
What makes them hilarious? Try to think about anybody now making a figure of a bear or a rabbit or an alien–you’d never get this idea. It’s a really strange, bizarre way to approach it. It’s really unique.
Have you held the Woolsey bunny figure? Yes. It’s thousands of bottle caps attached to wood, so it’s got weight to it. It’s a good example, and it stands up by itself, though the feet are way too big for the body.
What condition is the Woolsey bunny figure in? It is what it is. Some of the bottle caps are rusty, probably because they were rusty when the Woolseys got them. There’s no reason to do any kind of restoration. Its age and its patina is what makes it wonderful, what makes it fun and folky.
What’s the world auction record for a Woolsey bunny figure? Was it set with you? We have the world auction record. We got $10,200 for a bunny figure in 2007. [The link reflects the hammer price, without premium.]
Why will this Woolsey bunny figure stick in your memory? It’s a great example–what you look for when you look for examples of the Woolseys’ work. It’s nice to have one as nice as this. For folk art collectors, it’s exactly what you’re looking for. This is truly an American art form. The Woolseys were in the heartland, and they were very isolated artists. There were no European masters, no outsiders telling them what to do. And it’s a story of something lost and then found. To have something lost and then appreciating it is what this field is all about.
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Images are courtesy of Slotin Folk Art Auction.
Steve Slotin previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Sam Doyle painting on tin roofing material that went on to command $17,000; a work on paper by Minnie Evans that later sold for $8,000; and a sculpture by Ab the Flag Manwhich ultimately sold for $1,200.
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