2012 BHFA — Vollis Simpson: Whirligig Artist

Vollis Simpson: Whirligig Artist
by Jefferson Currie II

Vollis Simpson grew up in Wilson County, near the town of Lucama. His family farmed, and his father moved buildings for a living. Vollis was drafted before World War II, and continued serving during the war in the Army Air Corp stationed on the Island of Saipan. During the war, two projects foreshadowed his approach to repurposing cast-off materials after the war: a windmill he made to wash soldiers’ clothing and a motorcycle he constructed out of spare parts.

After the war, he opened a repair shop in a rural area outside of his hometown of Lucama, where he repaired farm and industrial machinery. He built tow trucks out of Army surplus trucks and used them to move machinery into manufacturing plants and to tow large trucks. He also salvaged metal from around the area, and he—like his father—moved buildings, including tobacco barns, houses, railroad depots, and the Parker’s Barbecue building, among others. During the evenings, he farmed. As he reached retirement age, he began to slow down a bit. While running his businesses since the war, he had constructed only one windmill. He built it to force heat into his home, but there was a smoke problem, and his wife, Jean, told him to take it out.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he began to make the windmills and whirligigs that have become so well known. Over a ten year span, he made more than twenty whirligigs and placed them around a small pond in a field on family land across the road from his repair shop. He created the whirligigs out of salvaged metal, fiberglass, wood, and other objects. He painted some of the materials, and he sometimes attached pieces of reflective road signs that he cut into various shapes. The road-sign reflectors glow at night, looking to some people like stained glass. Unaffiliated members of the local community refer to the whirligig park Vollis built—with its cacophony of sound and sight during the day and at night—as “Acid Park,” “The Lights,” and “The Phenomenon.”

Although there is a long history of whirligig-making in eastern North Carolina, Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs are larger and more intricate than most. He spent more than thirty years creating whirligigs before his death at the end of May 2013, and his work is known throughout the world. Some of his pieces reside at the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Olympic Folk Art Park in Atlanta, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, as well as other places throughout Wilson County, North Carolina, and the United States, and even in the Museum of Everything in London, England.

He and his artwork have been written about and featured at conferences by scholars such as Roger Manley, Dennis Montagna, and Ron Harvey. In 2010, Vollis received the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest honor for an artist. Vollis has also been featured in the New York Times and other publications. His work is currently being conserved and repaired for an outdoor museum in downtown Wilson, NC-—the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park—a project that has garnered support from the NEA, ArtPlace, and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, among others.

Jefferson Currie II is a folklorist and a member of the Lumbee tribe.

Original publication:
Currie, Jefferson II. “Vollis Simpson: Whirligig Artist.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 59.2 (2012): 23-25.

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