In 2017, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park opened in the heart of downtown Wilson. The two-acre park features the largest collection of the 50-foot installations in the world. This year the park adds a Museum to its grounds.
The Whirligig Museum is located just across the street from the park. Inside, you can examine a whirligig up close. You can learn about the creation of the park. You can even find out more about the man who spent his retirement building 50-foot tall sculptures that come to life with the slightest
Vollis Simpson was a farm equipment repairman turned accidental folk artist. He began making gigantic kinetic sculptures at his family farm in Wilson County when he was about 65 years old. He had a way of turning metal scraps into magnificent things. Road signs were welded to plows and fastened to bicycles and washing machine parts. Vollis found a harmony in marrying the unexpected to form the fantastic.
“I didn’t call it art. I didn’t call it nothing,” he once said. “Just go to the junkyard and see what I could get. Went by the iron man, the boat man, the timber man. Ran by every month. If they had no use for it, I took it.”
The inspiration was in his gleanings, he said. “I’d look at a piece of metal, think of something and jump right on it.”
Vollis created sculptures that, with the slightest breeze, would awaken -spinning, dancing, jangling. Each piece reflects Simpson’s experiences, from his life in rural North Carolina to his service in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II.
He worked on his “windmills” seven days a week. He lived to see what he thought of as a hobby for himself and quirky entertainment for the neighbors become part of a seriously regarded corner of the art world, one that generates master’s theses and museum shows.
Perhaps his biggest break came in the mid-1990s, when Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who was preparing to open the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, decided Mr. Simpson was just the man to provide its signature piece. She had visited him in Lucama and was attracted by the grand scale of his larger works, and by their complexity and precise engineering. She also liked his modesty.
“He’s delighted with attention, but he doesn’t need it,” she said. “My favorite artists don’t watch themselves being artists.”
She brought him up to look over the museum site at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and he went to work, eventually coming up with a 55-foot high, 45-foot wide, three-ton whirligig of whirligigs that now towers outside the museum. Built atop a sign pole salvaged from a gas station, topped by a bicycle rider, cats and angels, and incorporating oil filters, milkshake canisters and waffle-iron parts, it prompts incredulous grins from passing tourists and draws locals to watch its wild spinning during thunderstorms.
He painted it mostly red, white and blue and called it “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” “You put one of his freshly painted pieces, moving as he designed it, anywhere in the world, and people will stop what they’re doing and stare and smile and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Hoffberger said.
During his life Vollis Simpson never called himself an artist, but the New York Times did. At the time of his death in May of 2013, he was the creator of some of the most recognizable work in the genre of homemade Outsider Art. Today, his work can be found in museums around the world. But the largest collection of his Whirligigs are right here in his hometown of Wilson in the Park — and now Museum — that bear his name