Whirligig Project

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project

Funding Received: 2011
Wilson, NC
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 16, 2012

The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project as a Collaborative Project

The goals of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project are to repair and conserve 29 large whirligigs that were constructed by artist Vollis Simpson and erected in a field along a rural road near his repair shop in Wilson County, North Carolina. Upon completion of the repair and conservation work the sculptures will be installed in a park in downtown Wilson, North Carolina, to serve as an anchor for ongoing creative development and revitalization of the downtown area as an artistic, economic, social and cultural hub for the community.

ArtPlace funds help support the continuing repair and conservation work on Mr. Simpson’s kinetic sculptures, the creation of jobs and training of workers through art conservation, design of the downtown Wilson, North Carolina park and environs, development of educational outreach through park programming and continual marketing and community outreach of the project, programs and opportunities.

Jefferson Currie II is documentation, collections and surface conservation manager for the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project. ArtPlace spoke with Currie about the challenges and rewards involved in working with local, state and national partners.

ARTPLACE: Do you have partners on the project?

CURRIE: We have had numerous partners involved in the repair and conservation of Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs as well as the revitalization and development of downtown Wilson, North Carolina, the education programming, job creation program and community outreach. The North Carolina Arts Council has provided financial and technical assistance throughout the process. They have worked with us on documentation of Mr. Simpson’s artwork, educational programming and exhibit curation concerning the repair and conservation work, a community oral history program during the annual Whirligig Festival in Wilson, NC and curatoral input on the repair, conservation and park design. Their continued support is crucial to the project and we appreciate all of the time and talent they have shared with us. Wilson Community College has been working with us to develop programs to help folks on the repair and conservation crew who need formal educational opportunities to go along with the on the job training they are getting while working with the experienced mechanics, welders and machinists we have employed.

This project is multi-faceted and in addition to the formal assistance provided by organizations and institutions, we have been getting a lot of support from local businesses and individuals. Evan-MacTavish-Agricraft, Inc., a Wilson manufacturing company has donated the metal we need to repair the artwork and support the whirligigs while they are being conserved, and Green’s Auto Salvage has donated hard to find parts and scrap metal that we need to replace corroded or missing pieces that Mr. Simpson uses in his sculptures. It’s hard to just pinpoint a few people, because there have been so many people that have lent their support and guidance to the project. Some give us our time and energy, some give donations and sponsorships, some give advice when we need a little guidance. The community of Wilson City and County and people from across North Carolina and the United States have been so giving to this project that we feel real humbled by their generosity. I would have to say that our most important partnership is with Vollis Simpson. It has been crucial to the project having him advise us on the process, materials, methods, thoughts and inspiration that informs each and every piece that he created. Being able to visit with him, documenting his life and work, and have him come into the repair and conservation headquarters to see the process of conserving his whirligigs has been invaluable. We all get a little boost just knowing that we are helping his windmills return to a functional and visual form that pleases him and his family. Our most valuable partner is the 93 year old artist Vollis Simpson. I think we all feel proud to know him and prouder still that he has entrusted us with the awesome responsibility of conserving his magnificent sculptures.

ARTPLACE: What is the toughest thing about collaboration?

CURRIE: Collaboration is a process that has many facets, but the ones that jump out at me are honesty, openness and sharing. In this project we are working with many partners that bring different things to the table. As a group, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project is working with the artist, repair and conserving the whirligigs, organizing educational programming, designing a downtown park, running a job training program, fundraising, marketing and developing a framework to harness the creative, economic, social and cultural development of the downtown area surrounding the park. Each of these aspects of the project has multiple partners that we have to collaborate with to achieve something that works for Mr. Simpson and his family, the community and the artwork. Being in the repair and conservation headquarters everyday and working with Mr. Simpson gives me a different perspective. I sometimes have to step back and realize that not everyone that we collaborate with thinks of each sculpture as a friend. I try to share my passion for the artwork and for Mr. Simpson with everyone, and what pleases me is that they all seem to get it and are as much in awe Mr. Simpson and his windmills as I am. It’s easy to be honest and open and to share, what is harder is making sure that everyone gets a chance to share in this collaborative process. We all want full representation from anyone who wants to be involved, but sometimes people might be reticent to get involved or not know how to get involved. In order to collaborate we need to make sure all the partners are at the table or it’s not true community collaboration. That’s tough to me, making sure all the voices are heard.

ARTPLACE: What is the most rewarding thing about collaboration?

CURRIE: Being able to talk with and spend time with Vollis Simpson is the most rewarding thing about collaboration on this project. I get to collaborate with the artist on the repair and conservation of the sculptures that he started creating on over thirty years ago, and that he continues to create today. Mr. Simpson is working on new pieces just about every day. He is always working on new ideas and fabricating parts that he can mechanize and engineer into artistically beautiful and kinetically breathtaking artwork. I get to learn from a master craftsman who is generous with his knowledge and his humor, a man that I respect and admire. Our countless conversations and interviews have informed the project in numerous ways. He has given us parts that we could never find, much less identify. He has explained to us a process of creating that has helped us understand how we can repair and conserve his artwork. Collaborating with him means listening. One day when we were out near his repair shop where he does most of his work he just casually mentioned that this one piece that most people call Guitar Man should be the last one move so that we can conserve it. I was curious and asked him why he wanted Guitar Man to be the last one we moved and he said that he just liked looking at it. We want to do right by Mr. Simpson and his family and so in our collaboration we work hard to make sure that their hopes and wishes for his artwork and the project as a whole are well understood.

ARTPLACE: What advice would you give to those having trouble making a collaboration work?

CURRIE: It is hard making a collaboration work. When there are multiple voices and ideas in a project it can get chaotic, but I think the keys to collaboration are the things I mentioned earlier, things like honesty, openness, sharing, but also, listening and compromising. We all have ways of seeing how things should be done, but if we listen and can genuinely compromise in a situation where there is a difference of opinion then we can get things done correctly. This project has been one where the collaboration has been easy and all of the partners have worked hard to see the collective vision of documentation, repair, conservation, economic development, park design and construction, education and fundraising are successful. By working together, collaboratively, we can show the people of Wilson County, the State of North Carolina and all of the United States that Vollis Simpson’s sculptures are magnificent, Mr. Simpson is a treasure and art can help us create places that can benefit our communities economically, socially, creatively and culturally.