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World-renowned whirligigs go on display in N.C.

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Artist Vollis Simpson transformed objects he found in a junkyard into massive wind-powered contraptions. A North Carolina park full of his art pieces will open in November.
USA TODAY

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.

No blueprints

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.