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This art show is inspired by Old Milwaukee beer cans, pin-up girls and America

Artist Bill Bruce with his beer-can inspired exhibit in his gallery/studio in downtown Fresno, CA.
Artist Bill Bruce with his beer-can inspired exhibit in his gallery/studio in downtown Fresno, CA. The Fresno Bee

Bill Bruce drinks only non-alcoholic beer.

Old Milwaukee is his brand if you're asking, though that will be fairly obvious during the one-night only art exhibit he's showing at his gallery for this month's ArtHop from 5-8 p.m. July 5.

The show's three-dimensional pieces, photos and installations are all made from Old Milwaukee cans; specifically, the “Stars and Stripes" series the brewery unveiled last year.

The cans feature a World War II-styled pin-up girl — and they immediately caught Bruce's eye.

"These cans are too good to be recycled," says Bruce, who saved the cans for several months before starting work on the exhibit. He became slightly obsessed, he adds.

He runs down the history of Old Milwaukee while explaining the show.

Old Milwaukee was founded in 1842 by Schlitz Brewing Company, which sold it to Stroh. It's now owned by Pabst.

"It kind of interrupted my usual artistic flow of painting," Bruce says.

"It was a challenge, as to what to do with the cans."

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Photographs of the Old Milwaukee beer can art that inspired Bill Bruce's current exhibit. Joshua Tehee The Fresno Bee

The 85-year-old is known for abstracts, and this is definitely different than the pieces he put on hold. As soon as the show is done, he'll get back to a series of cubist spray-paint canvases he's working up for a show at the Fig Tree Gallery in November.

Of course, this isn't his first digression for painting. There was a series of what Bruce describes as "creepy doll photos," which seems like a fitting description.

Then he did mannequins.

"I had a bunch of mannequins sitting around," Bruce says.

He still has them. A couple of those have gotten the stars-and-stripes treatment, to go along with the cans.

There are also empty cans hanging from the ceiling in nets and more laying on the floor around the gallery. Seven Old Milwaukee boxes are stacked next to a red, white and blue triptych of crushed cans.

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Bill Bruce used Old Milwaukee non-alcoholic beer cans for his latest exhibit. Bill Bruce

There are a lot of crushed cans in the show. Bruce used his car for the crushing, putting the cans under the wheels in his driveway. He had to do it one can at a time, so as not to destroy the artwork beyond use.

There was some trial and error, he says.

The show was inspired by the artwork on the cans, for sure, but also the trip Bruce took to Washington D.C. earlier this year as part of Central Valley Honor Flight. Bruce served in the Navy for four years during the Korean War and had almost forgotten about it all before taking the honor flight, he says.

"Being back there kind of gave me a shot in the arm," he says.

Then he realized that July's Arthop would be the day after the Fourth of July.

"It just kind of flowed together," he says.

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

American Patriot Series

Work by Bill Bruce

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