Whirligig Project

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project

Funding Received: 2011
Wilson, NC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
January 12, 2012

Thoughts From the Conservation Crew

There are days that we explore the creative mechanics and engineering that Simpson puts into his artwork. More recently, however, we have caught a glimpse of another side of Vollis Simpson; the obviously patient man. Simpson uses thousands of highway signs that he cuts and clips into shapes of varying stars, triangles, rectangles and polygons. Some whirligigs have a few dozen reflectors, while others have hundreds and even thousands. When caught in the sunlight, moonlight or headlight, the reflectors create magnificent illumination. In order for conservation and repair work to move forward, each reflector must be detached from the whirligigs and reattached to large cardboard boxes using new stainless steel nuts and bolts. This process allows us to store the parts in their correct positions while we repair and paint each piece. This task of removing and replacing each reflector takes time and patience.

Observing the whirligigs, I remember a day that I asked Simpson about the reflectors and how he cut all the shapes. I expected him to point over to a machine that cut out the small 1 inch by 2 inch pieces, but instead, he reached over and grabbed a pair of gigantic metal snips, handed me a reflector and told me to give it a try. After bearing down and squeezing the handles hard a small rectangular reflector shot out to the side. Simpson laughed and told me how he had cut out thousands using the same method. I thought about the strength it took (no wonder his arms and hands look like tree limbs)! But what really struck me was the time it took; the repetitive job cutting out hundreds of reflectors a day and then drilling holes in each and reattaching them to the whirligigs using nuts and bolts or wire.

I am consistently amazed by the mechanical, engineering and artistic expertise and creativity of Simpson, but for so long I had overlooked a more important aspect of his work: patience. As we continue this project, perhaps we can emulate Simpson’s model of patience as we strive to repair and conserve his phenomenal whirligigs to a condition that he and the Wilson community will be proud of. With thousands of reflectors in need of this process, surely we will get lots of practice.