Whirligig Project

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project

Funding Received: 2011
Wilson, NC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
September 2, 2011

Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs anchor new downtown park and brand a city.

Vollis Simpson, a graduate of the 11th grade and the U.S. Army Air Corps, is the creator of some of the most recognizable work in the genre of American homemade art by self-taught practitioners, now known as outsider or visionary art.  What began as a hobby and quirky entertainment for the neighbors has become part of a seriously regarded corner of the art world, one that generates master’s theses, museum shows, and significant money.  His works have graced the windows of Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan and are on permanent display in numerous cities worldwide.

To visit Simpson among back roads, where the abandoned tobacco barns are held up by vines, is to understand how naturally his art grew out of his old business.  One of 12 children, Simpson learned to fix things before he could read.  He joined the military and while stationed in the Pacific during WWII made his first whirligig from parts of a junked B-29 bomber, to power a giant washing machine for soldiers’ clothes.  Back home, he settled into the equipment repair business, and when the oil embargo drove up fuel prices in the 1970s, he made another whirligig to blow wood-heated air into his home.  His mother complained about the smoky smell, so he tossed the whirligig into a field.  Some years later, Simpson decorated the discarded piece and planted it in a pasture next to a pond.  Soon, tractor repair was gradually supplanted by whirligig construction.

His biggest break came when Rebecca Hoffberger, a Maryland philanthropist and consultant was preparing to open the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.  She decided Simpson was the right man to provide its signature piece.  She took him to the site and he came up with a 55 feet high, 45 foot wide, 3-ton whirligig that towers outside the museum.  Built atop a sign pole salvaged from a gas station, topped by a bicycle rider, cats and angels, and incorporating oil filters, a milkshake canister and waffle-iron parts, it prompts incredulous grins from passing tourists.  Hoffberger calls Simpson one of the “true visionaries, whose wit and genius for color and balance never fails to move people.  You put his pieces anywhere in the world, and people will stop and say, “Oh, my God.”

Now at the age of 92, the work has taken a physical toll on Simpson, who is no longer able to maintain his works.

The Wilson, NC community in partnership with local, state and national organizations is conserving the art collection, relocating the artworks and constructing Whirligig Park in central downtown Wilson.

This one-of-a kind collection is unique to Wilson and will create a strong identification for the community.  It will be a transformative catalyst for significant cultural economic development in downtown.

The significance of this project is evidenced by the generous support from the NC Arts Council, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Educational Foundation of America and numerous local corporations and individuals.