For nearly 30 years, Vollis Simpson has been designing, constructing, painting, placing and maintaining the large and small whirligigs and wind-machines in a two-acre meadow between his home and his workshop. Visitors have traveled from North Carolina, the Eastern Seaboard, the South and, indeed, from around the world to marvel at the magical place that this self-effacing, modest, forthright, taciturn man has created. Featured in untold magazines, newspapers and books, these giant whirligigs -- some reaching as high as 60-feet into the air -- have become too difficult and dangerous for their maker to maintain.
But, at 94, Simpson is still actively advising as to the repair and conservation effort known as the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project. He is the project’s greatest resource for the history of the original pieces and for finding replacement parts. Created entirely out of repurposed metal and wood, Simpson’s works are a catalogue of the agricultural and industrial economic history of the second half of the 20th century in Eastern North Carolina. The subject matter references World War II, farm animals and equipment, industrial equipment and other aspects of life and labor in the South.
Twenty-two of the 31 large whirligigs that Simpson built for his own enjoyment on his family’s farm near Lucama, N. C., already have been moved to Conservation Headquarters in downtown Wilson, N. C., for state-of-the-art repair and conservation. With a stellar team of conservation experts from the National Parks Service, the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tuckerbrook Conservation, DuPont and in-house experts Jefferson Currie, Juan Logan and Danny Price, the project has developed protocols for repair and conservation that likely will become a benchmark for other outdoor conservation projects around the country.
When Folk Art Messenger readers first learned of this project in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project had just gotten underway. A partnership of the City of Wilson, Wilson Downtown Properties, Wilson Downtown Development Corporation and the North Carolina Arts Council had announced an agreement with Simpson and his family to purchase 29 of Simpson’s major art works and to repair and conserve them for installation in a two-acre park in Historic Downtown Wilson.
Now with $2.5 million of the $7-million budget raised, the project has completed a public process in which more than 400 people participated, contributing their ideas about the park they hope to see. Award-winning landscape architects Lappas + Havener (North Carolina America Society of Landscape Architects Firm of the Year 2012) met monthly for a year with a diverse volunteer committee to bring the park design through the Schematic and Design Development stages. Construction drawings are now being prepared.
In developing the design, the landscape architects, volunteers and the curatorial team considered aspects of both the original site and the new location in the former tobacco warehouse district. Wilson was once the World’s Largest Brightleaf Tobacco Market. This synthesis of the old and new sites reveals a grid -- referencing the layout of tobacco pallets in the warehouses as well as the rows of tobacco grown on local farms -- overlaid by an organic central green that somewhat replicates the pond at the Simpson farm. The original arrangement and the tight spacing of Simpson’s whirligigs are repeated in the park design.
Another major consideration -- mentioned by a majority of local residents -- was the desire to preserve the nighttime experience of visiting the original site. Simpson hand-cut old reflective road signs, purchased from the North Carolina prison system, into tiny shapes (1’ x 2” and larger) placed to catch the reflections of the moon and approaching car headlights. Some of the whirligigs are studded with hundreds of these reflectors. The result was a beautiful experience that has proved difficult to recreate in an urban setting. Lappas + Havener discovered a lighting designer based in Greensboro, N. C., who was up to the challenge. Using three types of lighting and motion detectors, the lighting designer envisions standard safety lights, lighting directed towards the sculptures and special “hot spots” where viewers will stand to activate vector lighting striving to replicate the action and effect of car headlights.
Some of the whirligigs were identified by the conservation experts as too problematic to repair and conserve. They were either too fragile to conserve or too difficult to make safe for the public without destroying the "hand" of the artist. Those pieces and approximately 52 smaller pieces in the collection will be exhibited in a nearby indoor museum including documentation, interpretive signage and a video about the artist and the project.
If readers missed seeing all of Vollis Simpson’s original “Windmill Farm,” they have a short window of opportunity for seeing the remaining ten or so pieces at the original site. In addition, visitors often may find the artist there, still making smaller whirligigs and selling them out of his workshop. Some of the largest whirligigs are still at the farm, waiting for an opening in Conservation Headquarters, and a good day, to move power lines and shut down roads. Watching the conservation effort is fascinating. Tours can be booked by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park was recognized by the Folk Art Society of America in September 2012 as a "National Folk Art Site Worthy of Preservation and Protection." Projected opening date for the completed park is November 2013. Look for updates on the website: www.wilsonwhirligigpark.org.
The Folk Art Society's 26th Annual Conference in October 2013 will include a visit to Simpson's original site in Lucama and to the Whirligig Park Project in Wilson.