Whirligig art creator Vollis Simpson dies at 94
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Where others saw trash, Vollis Simpson saw whimsical, wind-powered whirligigs, creations with hundreds of moving parts that turned and twirled.
The whirligigs were made from recycled heating and air conditioning systems and reflector material Simpson patiently cut into thousands of tiny pieces that made the works shine when lights hit them in the dark. His work was featured in museums, backyards, dentist offices and the 1996 Olympics.
“I got caught with a lot of material, and I worked it out,” Simpson said in a 2010 interview with The Associated Press.
Simpson, 94, died Friday, Beth Liles of Joyner’s Funeral Home said.
Folklorist Jefferson Currie, who began working with Simpson about three years ago to record stories about the whirligigs and their creator, said Simpson’s daughter told him he died at his home in Lucama, about 40 miles east of Raleigh.
Simpson had a heart valve replacement in February and had returned home recently, Currie said.
Some of Simpson’s whirligigs stand as high as 50 feet and are constructed from recycled HVAC parts including motor fans and cotton spindles. They can weigh as much 3 tons.
He built the contraptions near his machine shop in Lucama. More than 30 of them were on display there until last year, when an effort to restore them began. That process is about halfway complete, with a few of the larger whirligigs still in the pasture, waiting to be moved.
The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is scheduled to open in November in Wilson, about 10 miles from his home.
People from across the world visited Simpson at his shop, and he would happily sit and talk with them.
“What Vollis was doing mechanically, creatively and artistically is unparalleled,” Currie said. “He worked on a scale that was a lot larger than anyone else. And even in that scale, he had a lot of intricacy. And I think that’s one of the things people recognized.
“They also saw the whimsy and the happiness in his pieces. They told stories — stories of community, of his time in World War II, of his love of airplanes. . People who see them for the first time, there’s this sense of wonder, and it’s kind of overwhelming. It’s hard to get your head around how one man could create all of this.”
His first whirligig, which he built while he was overseas during WWII, was stolen. He came home from the war and married Jean, the mother of their three children. He farmed and moved houses with trucks before opening the machine shop that eventually became whirligig central.
He started on his first whirligig at home in the early 1980s and spent about 10 years building other large ones. “People would drive by here every day to see what I was working on — old, crazy man,” he told AP.
Buyers included a shopping center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Four of them were also put on display at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Last month, the North Carolina House approved a measure making whirligigs the state’s official folk art.
The whirligigs are known as outsider art, works created by someone without formal arts training.
Simpson didn’t have an engineering degree, either, but that didn’t stop him from constructing a motorcycle with a bicycle and a stolen motor when he was an Air Force staff sergeant on Saipan during WWII. He also built tow trucks to move houses.
In an interview last summer, Simpson told AP he was conflicted about the park in his honor. He said he knew he could no longer care for his creations if they stayed at home with him, but he felt lonely without them.
“I just hope I live to see it,” he said of the park.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc