WILSON, N.C. — You really need to be outdoors and looking up to see the art of Vollis Simpson. And it helps if there’s a breeze.
The late folk artist was known for his “outsider” kinetic pieces called whirligigs — outlandish wind-powered metal contraptions that have been displayed at museums from Singapore to Baltimore to Atlanta, as well as at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow.
Simpson also left quite a mark in his Down East hometown, where his smaller creations that could fetch $600 to $1,000 are displayed in Wilson offices, living rooms and yards. And this spring, 20 of his multi-ton works — some the size of sports cars and all mounted on steel poles as sturdy as cellphone towers — are spinning in the new Whirligig Park.
That downtown park already looks like a crazy carnival set-up scene from a 1960s hippie comic book. When it officially opens in November, 31 enormous Simpson machines, all restored, will be on display.
Like da Vinci, Simpson was an inner-schooled genius who could bridge the worlds of art and engineering. He didn’t sculpt wood or stone and couldn’t paint like an artist, but he knew how to use weight, balance, cogs and ball bearings to create geared contraptions that would spin — easily and silently — when a breeze happened by.
There’s a “Mayberry” element to all this. This is how Simpson (1919-2013) summed up what he did: “I have a lot of junk and I have to do somethin’ with it.”
Locals describe him as “old-school salt-of-the-earth” and a “general curmudgeon” not affected by the artistic fame that found him late in life. He barely left the county, they note, aside from the time he had to drive some of his whirligigs to Atlanta for display at the 1996 Olympics.
The first hint of what was to make him famous came during World War II, on the island of Saipan in the Pacific theater. He rigged up a wind-powered washing machine for the Army Air Corps to use.
Back in Wilson — three hours away from the Kitty Hawk winds that attracted the Wright Brothers — Simpson started a trucking business that hauled heavy equipment and transported metal to dumps or to where he lived in Lucama, a crossroads just outside of town. He retired at 65 but made a weekly drive a half-hour south to Goldsboro to buy “stuff” from a junkyard. Otherwise, he holed up in his Lucama workshop welding odd frames, cutting and affixing metal panels and assembling projects, three or four at a time, that would spin in the wind. Simpson coated his creations in inexpensive Krylon paint and decorated them with recycled reflectors.
With no blueprints (Simpson never finished high school) he began by building gigantic ones. “He would dream them, then build 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 models upon which to draw. There were no windmills in Wilson County.
Blades on Simpson’s contraptions were carefully bent for wind-catching pitch. “Just keep him greased,” he would say. Then again, some pieces are wind-propelled not by blades but by wheels festooned with carefully angled tin milkshake-maker cups.
Juan Logan, a retired professor of studio art at UNC Chapel Hill, cites the Simpson piece called BBB Blue Star, saying that while it weighs almost 1,600 pounds, “It’s almost like you can blow on it and make it turn.”
Simpson eventually had 30-some spinning behemoths mounted atop metal, utility-style poles on his Lucama compound. This attracted teen cruisers; the local buzz grew and soon reached art circles. In the 1990s, an affluent art lover scouting for pieces for Baltimore’s new American Visionary Art Museum came to visit. She commissioned a 3-ton whirligig that was, like what she saw on Simpson’s property, an elaborate assembly of junk that gently moved in the wind.
Orders for public installations began to come in. Simpson, meanwhile, began making less elaborate yard-size and desktop pieces. He chatted with visitors who came by to view finished smaller works for sale. Simpson did not haggle over prices but was known to give away dinky whirligigs to kids.
A total of 84, of all sizes, are catalogued in Wilson. Logan says there are hundreds more, including six pieces in front of a dead strip mall in New Mexico, where an arid climate keeps them in great shape.
Nowadays, Simpson’s larger efforts go for tens of thousands of dollars.
“He was an absolutely amazing man,” Logan says. “The whole notion of ‘outside artists’ has changed — and he was a sculptor. His work is terrific.
“The most important thing was realizing he took the whole notion of repurposing materials to a new level; few things were wasted. On top of that, he was extremely patient. While some pieces were created quickly, others took a while. He was deliberate. He knew what he was doing. He would sometimes borrow things from something else he was working on — and that’s part of the whole idea. Many times, a young artist won’t take the chance to destroy a work to make another piece into something better. He would do it. That’s a kind of artistic maturity.”
Simpson accepted fame with hesitation. But in his last years, he was concerned about what would happen to his “stuff” — the finished works mounted outside his workshop and the assorted junk-in-progress dotting his grounds.
He didn’t need to fret. Lovers of Simpson’s folk art and the town of Wilson amassed $8 million through grants, sponsorships, fundraisers and donations for acquisition of Simpson’s enormous whirligigs, the downtown park site, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Conservation Headquarters repair shop and more.
Long, who knew the elderly Simpson, stepped in to preserve and curate Wilson’s Whirligig Park as manager of conservation for the project. This has involved Logan commuting from his studio near Charlotte three days a week for at least four years. It’s a 3.5-hour drive.
The conservation headquarters combines forensic cultural anthropology and machine shop expertise. Pay a visit and see for yourself.
Where giants are restored
The park and conservation headquarters are blocks apart in a former low-slung warehouse district. Visit the repair shop — open weekdays, free of charge.
Out on the fenced-in asphalt, parts of in-progress restorations lay about like tin dinosaur bones. Go inside the former tobacco shed, sign the guest book, and someone can show you around. You’ll see members of the 11-member artisan crew restoring large Simpson pieces that will join the 20 already up and spinning at Whirligig Park. The weight of each whirligig is about 3 tons.
Tour groups are welcome. (Several from the state’s school for the blind came there to touch and turn.)
You can find out:
• How the gigantic sculptures are taken apart and reconstructed. Surfaces are sanded, chemically treated and carefully resurfaced with preservation-worthy, industrial-caliber semi-gloss paint matched to Simpson’s original colors.
• The balance within larger whirligigs is such that even large blades spin easily and quietly.
• The pieces at Whirligig Park aren’t named — Simpson wasn’t into that — but have nicknames. “Tricycle Globe” drew the attention of a visiting historian who noticed its series of spinning, concentric orbs made it look like an atomic bomb ... and that Simpson had affixed a pair of castoff “B” decals — a possible reference to the “Big Boy” atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
• Some pieces sustained damage over the Lucama years from tornadoes and hurricanes. “Gunshot Bicycle Man,” which features a guy who pedals when a breeze hits, was the victim of target-shooting vandals. That piece, now mounted at Whirligig Park, has a duplicate rider — on a duplicate 1971 Schwinn Speed frame that took curators two and a half years to locate.
As Simpson would have done, replacement parts are often recycled scraps.
• Restored pieces 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).
At the park, by the way, pieces are installed so vehicles approaching them after dark can enjoy the full-glow Vollis Simpson treatment in their headlights.
What goes around
The Simpson effect has already kicked in. His works are the No. 1 attraction in a city that pulls 20,000 visitors per year.
A Simpson museum will follow in Whirligig Station, a renovated tobacco warehouse that’ll display 53 smaller (life-size and tabletop) pieces.
The tourism people in Wilson are compiling a map locating Simpson pieces you can see around town. The visitor center alone holds more than 25 smaller works.
You can also get directions to Vollis Simpson’s place in Lucama, where three giant whirligigs will remain. From U.S. 301 in Wilson, head southwest to Wiggins Mill Road. Then head west through thickets of machine shops, residential developments, pastures, double-wides and an array of rural churches. In about 7 miles you come to a woods-lined dip where, through fences, you’ll see the family’s trio of remaining whirligigs.
It’s where the rural route is intersected by Willing Worker Road and Windmill Road.
More information: wilsonwhirligigpark.org
Where you can also see whirligigs by Vollis Simpson
Atlanta: Courtland Avenue and McGill Street, installed for 1996 Olympics.
Baltimore: American Visionary Art Museum. avam.org
Hickory, N.C.: Hickory Museum of Art. hickoryart.org
Norfolk, Va.: Baron & Ellin Gordon Art Galleries at Old Dominion University. odu.edu
Pittsboro, N.C.: Small Museum of Folk Art. smallmuseumfolkart.org
Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Museum of Art. ncartmuseum.org
St. Paul, Minn.: Science Museum of Minnesota. smm.org
Sheboygan, Wis.: John Michael Kohler Arts Center, in yearlong "The Road Less Traveled" exhibit. jmkac.org
Williamsburg, Va.: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (Colonial Williamsburg). history.org
Wilmington, N.C.: Cameron Art Museum. cameronartmuseum.org