There is good reason the works by folk artist, Steve Moseley are referred to as patience bottles or whimsy bottles: they require incredible attention and evoke a powerful sense of oddity. Commenting on complex and controversial themes like religion, sex, and politics, the bottles are windows into Moseley’s satirical view of humanity and the absurdity that often is a part of being human.
A native of Kentucky now residing in St. Louis, he took his hobby of creating ships in bottles and added a deeper level of artistry. “A friend said to me, ‘Why don’t you try patience bottles or whimsy bottles?’” This art form is a lot like making a ship in a bottle, but instead of a single ship, there are scenes inside with characters acting out a narrative. For Moseley, that narrative is provocative and pointed as he creates edgy and visually-charged tableaus inside of bourbon bottles.
Moseley’s works are currently on display at Intuit: The Center for Outsider and Intuitive Art in Chicago through July 17th. Accessible in his use of humor and unapologetic commentary, the moments within the thick bottles take on an interesting abstraction as a viewer looks at them from different angles, different perspectives. The resulting works challenge and comment on controversial subjects related to religion, sex, and politics as quirky microcosms.
Moseley does not shy away from any subject. “I like the religious stuff the best. I like to push people, especially conservative Christians,” he explained. “I like people to crinkle their nose. Whether they’re crinkling their nose because they’re laughing or crinkling their nose out of disgust. I don’t care if they like it or not, I just want to get a reaction out of people.”
“We were at a folk fest in 2008, and a woman and her daughter were looking at a bottle and they just kind of crinkled their nose and walked away,” Moseley said. The bottle is titled, “What Would Jesus Do?” It depicts a priest tantalizing a young boy with lollipops, while Jesus has a gun pointed at the priest, aiming to shoot. “There was a little boy and his mother looking at [that] bottle and the little boy said, ‘That’s messed up,’ but he probably didn’t know just how messed up the scene actually was.”
Moseley’s process is elaborate and the patience it requires in enviable. First, Moseley carves the figures and creates the backdrops, ground, and other props from wood, covering them in a layer of clay so that he may shape them more liberally. “I use epoxy clay to do the hair and the nose and to cover any defects,” he explained. Carving each figure and prop for his scenes, he carefully lowers the completed pieces into the bottle. Once the whimsy bottle is complete, he creates a stopper that prevents it from being opened again.
The bottle is turned upside-down and the cross bar is laid in where it will be tapped through the hole in the stopper’s shaft to create a tight fit. “They are not meant to be opened, hopefully for a few decades.” The tiny stories then become frozen moments that are meant to capture the enduring flaws in the human condition.
Moseley’s preferred vessels to house his whimsical scenes are bourbon bottles. “I love the shape of bourbon bottles. I started to collect them to put ships in them, and when I switched to whimsy bottles, it was the perfect bottle for that as well.”
When he finds them, he collects larger bottles to construct scenes with several characters. The standard bottles can only house up to three figures, so these larger ones invite the opportunity to tell a story with an extensive cast of characters. “The Last McSupper is one of my favorite bottles and that is in Berlin right now. There are 13 people in it: Jesus and his 12 apostles. I don’t find those larger bottles often, but when I do, I save them for a really good idea.” Moseley’s rendition of the famous painting, “The Last McSupper”, is not muted and somber, but colorful and sardonic as Jesus and his Apostles feast on McDonald’s.
”If You Vote for Trump You Will Not Receive Absolution” is timely, of course, in this election year that feels more and more like some surreal circus of idiocrasy. One of the bottles on view now at Intuit, it depicts a Bishop pointing at a Donald Trump figure, a woman stands behind the two men holding a “Trump 2016” sign in each hand. Her look is devoid of a consciousness or emotion, and is instead a blankness that implies a brainwashing or a complete and utter mindlessness. Trump stands with his hand raised, bent at the elbow and evoking his trademark mannerism of self-righteousness and resembling a Hitler salute. Moseley said this bottle will soon head to Rotterdam in the Netherlands for an exhibition about religion and politics.
In “God Made the Earth Round then Filled Every Corner with Submissive Women and God Giggled,” also in the exhibition, Adam and Eve stand in an underwhelming garden. A snake slithers downward to Eve, handing her a copy of Ms. Fed Up magazine with the cover model as a Rosie the Riveter figure wearing the uniform and headset of an employee manning a drive-through. Eve looks defiant, even empowered, ignoring Adam as he asks for her to make him Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
A snake figure makes its way into many of his bottles and has become a signature for Moseley. “The first bottle I made, I was looking for what else to put in there. And I thought I would just put a snake in there. And the easiest snake to paint is a Coral Snake: just red, yellow, and black. And after a while, my friend who suggested I start making these bottles, said I should always put it in there.”
Usually a solitary art form that is often considered more of a hobby, Steve Moseley’s patience bottles fearlessly navigate a public forum with subjects often reserved for a guarded privacy. Aiming to confound and challenge, these pointedly provocative bottles contain moments like time capsules, showing the error in our ways, our silliness, and our daily human trials.