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The extraordinary legacy of whirligig creator Vollis Simpson



"Have you been out to Acid Park yet?" That's how I first heard about Vollis Simpson's whirligigs when I moved to Wilson, N.C., in 1991. So I headed south down 301 to Lucama, hung a right at Klint's Korner Family Restaurant and wound my way through tidy tobacco country on Wiggins Mill Road.

There they were, looming up between loblolly pines as I came over a rise. Huge colorful windmills spinning the humid air, mounted atop the stout metal posts that gas stations put their prices on along an interstate highway. I pulled onto the packed dirt of Vollis Shop Road and untied a gate half-swarmed with poison ivy and honeysuckle to stand beneath the things. Spinning fan blades, augmented bicycle rims and 40-foot-wide welded wheels centered on industrial bearing housings produced a symphonic din of every possible metallic timbre. And I just started laughing. Laughter burst out of me.

It's a pilgrimage that thousands of curious locals and art mavens have made over the years, particularly on windy days or at night when a car's headlamps light up the hundreds of tiny pieces of reflective road signs that Simpson affixed to every part of the contraptions. Their sounds and movement fill every visitor with a mixture of sheer kinetic delight and awe. And how often do you get to experience that?

Simpson, the uncommon visionary artist who enjoyed fame during his lifetime, died in his sleep at home last week. He was 94 years old. He'd had heart valve replacement surgery in February but couldn't overcome complications from the procedure.

An intuitive engineer and tinkerer, Simpson's curiosity about wind power prompted him to hook up a windmill to his Air Force company's washing machine during World War II on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, where he was serving as a staff sergeant. After the war, he farmed, moved houses and repaired machines out of his shop. Around normal retirement age three decades ago, he surveyed his piles of scrap metal, machine parts and the massive rigs required to transport a house and figured he should do something with it.

So, whirligigs. And absurdly big ones—closer in size to Ferris wheels than run-of-the-mill yard art. Some have intricate mechanics that the wind animates. Half-life-size horses gallop in front of a buggy. A lumberjack endlessly saws at a log. Closely aligned wheels whir in alternating directions, both parallel and perpendicular to the ground, becoming a blur of colors and glints.

Many outsider artists work in obscurity or suffer from mental illness. Beside them, Simpson fits in a small, other category of what might be called in eastern North Carolina "regular folks." Not only was he recognized in his time, he lived a very normal life. He wasn't haunted and hermetic like illustrator and writer Henry Darger or institutionalized like Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli. He didn't hear voices or see visions like Georgia painter and magical architect Howard Finster, who said that God asked him to make 5,000 paintings to spread the gospel.

Chances were pretty good that, if you came to see Simpson's whirligigs, you'd have a delightful audience with the artist (although he refused to call himself that). Simpson would bemusedly hold court in a hand-welded throne in front of his shop, where smaller-scale windmills were available for purchase. He'd charm the pants off visitors, telling the same stories over and over again.

I tooled out to his shop one Saturday afternoon to find him standing by the road with his hands on his hips. He'd caught a couple of adolescent boys throwing rocks at the windmills. After they'd served their punishment, picking litter out of the grassy ditch there, one of their fathers had roared up, mad as hell that Simpson made his boy clean up trash. Simpson was shaking his head and chuckling about it. We stood in the sun and talked about wind, engineering and art, the last being something he claimed to know nothing whatsoever about.

Nonetheless, his artistic reputation spread through high-visibility commissions in the 1990s. Several whirligigs were installed in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. One towers on top of a hill on the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Simpson helped open the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore in 1995, christening a 55-foot, two-ton piece called "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" at the bottom of Federal Hill.

Word got around last year that Simpson hadn't been well. When you get news like that about someone in his 90s, you grab your car keys. On the coldest, clearest, windiest January day I've ever seen in North Carolina, INDY Week photographer D.L. Anderson, Outsiders Art gallery owner Pam Gutlon and I headed out to Lucama with faint hopes to catch Simpson working in his shop. [See a slideshow of those photos.]

He wasn't there. And it looked like he hadn't been there in a while.

We stepped past his "Posted: Keep Out" signs to poke numbly through armpit-high mounds of cobwebbed, rusting scrap. Whirligig components protruded here and there from the dreck. We excavated several yard-long airplanes with PVC pipe bodies and toy truck wheels for landing gear. Four-foot bars with car-engine fan blades mounted along them were strewn about. A large square frame, painted yellow and swathed with reflective tape and sheet-metal stars, leaned against a shed door.

A business card on the ground held his shaky handwriting: "Charlott NC Want a Big W.Gig." His eyeglasses dangled from the chuck of a drill press. It felt mournful.

However, it was a perfect day for whirligigs. In a steady gust, they were a deafening blur. One fallen red, white and blue rotor about 6 feet in diameter spun startlingly fast, its blades inches from the ground, producing a manic xylophonic chorus as it devastated the rebounding shoots of the bush engulfing its base. We found ourselves suddenly smiling, open-mouthed.

Over the last several years, many of his large whirligigs have been painstakingly dismantled and moved to a warehouse in Wilson where a team of conservators has been hard at work restoring them. Approximately 30 of them will be installed at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in downtown Wilson, slated to open in November. The public park will include an amphitheater, a fountain, a pavilion for a farmers market and other family-oriented features.

It's funded through $500,000 grants from both the Kresge Foundation and ArtPlace, coordinated by the National Endowment for the Arts (which is kicking in another quarter million) and other federal agencies, as well as the North Carolina Arts Council. It's a major public art project, especially for a state with a current legislature bent upon defunding as many of its cultural institutions as it can before the next election cycle.

Although I'm looking forward to the November opening, and I'm very thankful that the project saves Simpson's work both from decrepitude and from dispersion to institutions far from his home, I imagine there will be something oddly sanitized about it.

Rust will have been scrubbed away and bright paint layers will flatly shine. Brick warehouses and pristine lawns will surround the whirligigs, instead of wild kudzu and pines. The ambient downtown light will stunt the power of seeing Coney Island erupt out of rural pitch in Simpson's field.

These aren't gigantic pinwheels, after all. Some facet of the whirligigs is incomprehensible. Spun from compulsion as much as from creativity, they're unsolvable ciphers, even while their easy wonderment is so matter-of-fact. The whirligigs aren't normal objects, but the park will normalize them. You'll swing by the whirligigs on your way to get paper towels at Target.

The park won't have the weird, inspired mess of Simpson's shop. And, most of all, it'll lack that wry, drawling man with claw hands busy on a chunk of metal, sitting in a rusty throne upon a hoarder's path.

Vollis Simpson is gone, probably welding fan blades onto the pearly gates right now. Thanks, old man.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Machines of wonder and love."

A version of this article was first published on our Artery blog.

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