photo © Teelaklaatu
When I moved to North Carolina almost 30 years ago, one of the first sites on my list of places to visit in my new home state was Vollis Simpson’s farm in the coastal plains community of Lucama. I had heard enough about Simpson’s installation of giant whirligigs in a field to know that I had to see them for myself.
By late 1984, I paid my first visit to the place, met Simpson and had a good look at his towering, wind-powered creations, each made from hundreds of mechanical parts he had salvaged and ingeniously combined. I would return several times over the years to marvel at these remarkable kinetic contraptions – sometimes just for fun and sometimes to interview Simpson for one of several articles and essays I wrote about his work. By the time he stopped working a few years ago, there were more than 30 of his wind machines on the site. When he died at his home on May 31, 2013, Simpson was 94, a beloved figure in his native state and an internationally respected icon of southern folk art.
Simpson developed his mechanical interests early on, through his daily exposure to agricultural machinery on his family’s farm. He became fascinated with aircraft while serving in the US Army Air Corps during World War II, and he incorporated model airplanes into several of the works he later made. For most of his life, he earned a living by moving houses, which he accomplished with tow-trucks he custom built from surplus military vehicles augmented with myriad spare parts.
Simpson started building his “windmills", as he called them, in the late 1960s, implanting them firmly in the ground alongside a small pond located at one corner of a rural, five-points intersection. When well-maintained, they turned and pivoted in the wind, which also activated various moving parts on each of them. Reflective paint on their metal surfaces caused them to shine brightly at night when the headlight beams of passing cars swept across the field. During the 1970s, young people in the area reportedly enjoyed visiting the place at night while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. As a result it acquired the nickname "Acid Park".
By the early 1990s, Simpson started making much smaller, easily portable whirligigs for sale to visiting art collectors, as well as larger pieces commissioned for the grounds of several art museums, including the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Four of his works are permanently installed with sculptures by other southern folk artists in Atlanta, Georgia’s “Folk Art Park”, created to coincide with the 1996 Summer Olympics in that city. On June 19, less than three weeks after Simpson’s death, the state legislature of North Carolina formally recognised him for his creative contributions, and named whirligigs as the official folk art of North Carolina.
At this writing, the large pieces on the Simpson farm are in the process of being moved to the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, scheduled to open in November 2013 in Wilson, North Carolina, about 10 miles from their original site. It promises to be a fitting monument to one of the American South’s greatest artists.
by Tom Patterson