Article by Kenneth Walker
Photographs by Ann Oppenhimer.
Whirligigs, some towering more than 40 feet high — articulated mules pulling wagons, men riding bicycles, airplanes and rocket ships launching with the breeze — fill the field next to Vollis Simpson’s repair shop in Lucama, N. C. Complex constructions of found materials spin in different directions propelled by the wind. Made of everything from fan blades, milk-shake canisters to bicycle reflectors and machine parts, these elements are perfectly balanced and brightly painted.
Simpson, 91, is one of North Carolina’s most famous self-taught artists. His work is on permanent display in Baltimore, Atlanta, Raleigh and Albuquerque and is represented in private folk art collections throughout the United States. Folk art collectors have long wondered what would become of the whirligig environment on Simpson’s property.
On May 21, 2010, the North Carolina Arts Council and the City of Wilson, N. C., announced the creation of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, a two-acre public park in downtown Wilson dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of 32 of Simpson’s large-scale whirligigs. The works will be relocated to the park from the field where they have whirled for many years. The project is currently in the planning stages but includes an inventory and documentation of the collection, a short film about the artist and his work and a public process to establish educational and design goals for the park. The park is destined to become a destination site for folk art aficionados.
Simpson built his first windmill to power a washing machine while stationed on the island of Saipan in the South Pacific during World War II. In 1946, he returned to Lucama and entered the family business of moving buildings. He also opened a repair shop. In the mid 1980s, he began turning his access to raw materials into a second career as an artist.
The artist plans his large-scale whirligigs without any drawings or guidelines, constructing them in his shop and then assembling them outside to meet his vision of the final work. He is the ultimate recycler, and his workshop is filled with scores of metal debris. “I just can’t throw nothing away ‘cause I may need it later,” says Simpson.
One of his largest commissions, the 55-foot high, 45-foot wide, three-ton whirligig at the entrance to the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), in Baltimore, is a favorite of residents and visitors alike, especially when the winds kick up in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. As Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM director, said, “I only wish Alexander Calder could have known him. Calder would have been smitten.”
Simpson, who still puts in ten-hour days, can usually be found hard at work in his repair shop building yet another “windmill” (as he calls them). Collectors should not miss the opportunity to visit him in Lucama to see his environment before it is moved to Wilson. The Wilson Visitors Bureau will continue to organize the annual Wilson Whirligig Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors each November. For more information see www.wilsonwhirligigfestival.com.
KENNETH WALKER is a folk art collector in Silver Spring, Md.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: