Opening Reception 5 September 2013 6-8 pm
Vollis Simpson, who died this past June at the age of 94, never called himself an artist, but the thousands of people who have visited his astounding whirligig field in Wilson County, North Carolina, certainly do. Towering fifty feet or more above ground, the more than thirty monumental whirligigs erected in his field demonstrate the power of individual vision coupled with a traditional art form. They have found a home in the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Historic Downtown Wilson.
After a lifetime of repairing machinery and moving houses, Simpson found himself at age 65 with spare time and many spare parts. Rather than “sit around and watch TV,” Simpson eyed his collection, remembered a windmill he constructed during World War II, and began to build. Using some of the same rigs he’d developed for moving houses, Simpson began constructing enormous windmills in his yard. They did not resemble the working windmills of grinding or irrigation use, but referenced the concepts of weather vanes and handcrafted whirligigs that are still seen locally on houses, fence posts and barns.
Close inspection of these twirling behemoths reveals an inventory of objects that serves as a catalog of the agricultural and industrial economic history of the second half of the twentieth century in eastern North Carolina. Highway and road signs, HVAC fans, bicycles, ceiling fans, mirrors, stovepipes, I-beams, pipe, textile mill rollers, ball bearings, aluminum sheeting, various woods, steel rods, rings, pans, milkshake mixers and many more such materials form the supports and moving parts. Punctuating the massive conglomerations of parts and pieces are larger-than-life representations of farm animals and people. Some figures reference experiences from Simpson’s own life, such as the many WWII era airplanes and the guitar player based on Simpson’s son who joined a rock and roll band. Other figures, the lumberjacks sawing wood, for example, recreate the classic interacting figures that characterize fencepost whirligigs of jackknife and jigsaw.
Simpson’s “signature” finishing touch to his windmill structures were devised from highway road signs. Simpson realized that if he cut up signs into 1” square chips and fastened them to the surface of his windmills, they would reflect light, particularly at night. Spaced evenly at 3 to 5 inch intervals, thousands of reflectors gleam from every surface.
Wilson Whirligig Park website: www.wilsonwhirligigpark.org
Art Department website: art.unc.edu
More information from a College of Arts and Sciences feature on Vollis Simpson can be found here