Metal Shop

World-renowned Whirligigs Proceed On Screen In N.C.

WILSON, N.C. — You actually have to be outside and looking up to see the artwork of Vollis Simpson. If there is a breeze plus it helps.

The late folk artist has been known for his “outsider” kinetic pieces called whirligigs — eccentric wind-powered metal contraptions which have been displayed in museums in Singapore into Baltimore to Atlanta, in addition to at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.

Simpson left quite a mark in which are displayed in living rooms Wilson offices and lawns. And this spring, 20 of the works — a number the size of all and sport cars mounted on steel poles as sturdy towers – are spinning in the Whirligig Park.

That downtown park already looks like a mad carnival set-up scene from a 1960s hippie comic book. 31 Simpson machines, all will soon be on display when it opens in November.

Much like da Vinci, Simpson was an inner-schooled genius who could bridge the worlds of art and engineering. He didn’t sculpt stone or wood and couldn’t paint to be an artist, but he understood how to use weight, balance, cogs and ball bearings to create when a cinch happened by.

There’s a “Mayberry” element to this. This is how Simpson (1919-2013) summed up exactly what he did: “I’ve a good deal of junk and I must perform somethin’ with it”

Locals describe him as “old-school salt-of-the-earth” along with a “general curmudgeon” not affected by the artistic fame that discovered him late in life. He left the county, they note, apart from the time he had to drive some of his whirligigs to Atlanta for display.

The first hint of what was to make him renowned came on the island of Saipan, during World War II in the Pacific theater. He rigged up a machine to the Army Air Corps to use.

No blueprints

Back in Wilson — three hours away in Simpson began a trucking business that hauled transported metal and heavy equipment to dumps or to where he dwelt in Lucama, a crossroads just outside of city. He retired at 65 but made a weekly drive per half-hour south to Goldsboro to buy “stuff” out of a junkyard. He holed up in his Lucama workshop welding frames that were odd, cutting and affixing metal panels and assembling projects, three or four. His creations were coated by Simpson in Krylon paint and decorated them.

With no patterns (Simpson never finished high school) he began by constructing colossal ones. “He’d dream them, then assemble them,” says Henry Walston, chairman of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum. “He was limited only by imagination and what was on hand.”

The rough-hewn tinkerer had no versions. There were no windmills in Wilson County.

Blades on Simpson’s contraptions were carefully bent. “Just keep him” he’d say. Then again, some pieces are wind-propelled not by blades by wheels festooned with detachable cups.

Juan Logan, a retired professor of studio art at UNC Chapel Hill, cites the Simpson bit called BBB Blue Star, stating while it weighs nearly 1,600 pounds, “It is almost like it’s possible to blow it off and allow it to turn.”

Simpson eventually had behemoths mounted atop alloy sticks onto his Lucama compound. This drawn cruisers; the buzz grew and reached artwork circles. From the 1990s, a rich art fan searching for bits for Baltimore’s new American Visionary Art Museum came to visit. She commissioned a whirligig which was, like what she saw Simpson’s house.

Orders for installations started to come in. Simpson began making less background pieces and elaborate yard-size. He chatted with people who came by to see finished functions available. Simpson didn’t haggle over prices but had been proven to give away dinky whirligigs to children.

A total of 84 are catalogued in Wilson. Logan says that there are hundreds more, including six pieces facing a dead strip mall in New Mexico, in which an arid weather keeps them in great form.

Nowadays go for thousands of dollars.

“He was an absolutely amazing man,” Logan says. “The whole idea of ‘outside artists’ has changed — and he had been a sculptor.   His job is terrific.

“The main thing was knowing that he took the whole notion of repurposing materials to a different level; few things were squandered. In addition to that, he was extremely patient. Others took a while when some bits were created fast. He had been deliberate. He knew what he was doing. He would occasionally borrow things from some thing else he worked — and that’s part of the idea. Many times, a young artist won’t take the chance to destroy a work to create another bit into something better. He would do it. That is a kind of artistic maturity”

Fame was accepted by Simpson with hesitation. However, in his last years, he had been worried about what would happen to his “things” — the final works mounted outside his workshop along with the various junk-in-progress dotting his grounds.

He did not need to fret. $8 million was amassed by lovers of town of Wilson and Simpson’s folk art through donations, sponsorships, fundraisers and grants for acquisition of Simpson whirligigs, the Caribbean park site, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Conservation Headquarters mechanic and much more.

Long, who knew the Simpson, stepped in to preserve and curate Wilson’s Whirligig Park as manager of conservation. This has included Logan commuting out of his studio near Charlotte three days a week.   It’s a 3.5-hour drive.

The conservation headquarters unites machine shop experience and forensic anthropology. Pay a visit and see for yourself.

Where giants are restored

The park and conservation headquarters are cubes apart in a former warehouse district that is low-slung.   Visit with with the repair shop weekdays, at no cost.

Out on the fenced-in asphalt, components of in-progress restorations lay about like tin dinosaur bones. Proceed within the tobacco drop, sign the guest book, and a person will show you around.     You will see members of this artisan crew restoring Simpson pieces which will unite the 20 up and turning at Whirligig Park. Each whirligig’s weight is about 3 tons.

Tour groups are welcome.  

(Several in the nation’s college for the blind arrived there to turn and touch.)

You can find out:

• The way the gigantic sculptures are taken apart and rebuilt. Surfaces chemically treated, are coated and resurfaced with preservation-worthy , industrial-caliber semi-gloss paint matched to Simpson colours.

• The balance within larger whirligigs is such that even large blades twist softly and easily.

• The pieces are not named — Simpson wasn’t into that — but have nicknames. “Tricycle Globe” attracted the attention of a visiting historian who detected its series of spinning, concentric orbs made it seem like an atomic bomb … which Simpson had lurks a pair of castoff “B” decals — a possible reference to the “Big Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

• damage was sustained by Some bits over the Lucama years out of tornadoes and hurricanes. “Gunshot Bicycle Man,” which features a man who pedals every time a breeze hits, was the casualty of target-shooting vandals. That bit mounted at Whirligig Park, includes a rider — on a duplicate 1971 Schwinn Speed framework that took curators to find.

Replacement components are often bits since Simpson would have completed.

• Restored bits in Whirligig Park spin faster than they did on Simpson’s property. The one-block park is on cleared land on one of Wilson’s highest elevations (the Lucama shop is in a wooded area).

By the way, pieces are set up so vehicles approaching them after dark may delight in the full-glow Vollis Simpson treatment within their headlights.

What goes around

The Simpson effect has kicked in. His functions are the No. 1 attraction in a town which pulls 20,000 visitors per year.

A Simpson museum will follow Whirligig Station, a renovated tobacco warehouse that will display 53 smaller (life-size and tabletop) pieces.

A map locating is being compiled by the tourism people in Wilson. The visitor centre alone holds works.

You might get instructions to Vollis Simpson’s location in Lucama.   From U.S. 301 in Wilson, head southwest to Wiggins Mill Road. Then head west through thickets of residential developments, equipment shops, pastures, double-wides and a range of rural churches. In about 7 miles you visit a dip where, through fences, you are going to see the trio of staying whirligigs of the family.

It’s where the rural road is intersected by Windmill Road and Willing Worker Road.


Where You Might Also see whirligigs from Vollis Simpson

Atlanta: Courtland Avenue and McGill Street, installed for 1996 Olympics.

Baltimore: American Visionary Art Museum.

Hickory, N.C.: Hickory Museum of Art.

Norfolk, Va.: Baron & Ellin Gordon Art Galleries in Old Dominion University.

Pittsboro, N.C.: Little Museum of Folk Art.

Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Museum of Art.

St. Paul, Minn.: Science Museum of Minnesota.

Sheboygan, Wis.: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in yearlong “The Road Less Traveled” Display.

Williamsburg, Va.: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (Colonial Williamsburg).

Wilmington, N.C.: Cameron Art Museum.

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