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