Vollis Simpson never called himself an artist, but the New York Times did. Upon his death in 2013, the Times described Simpson as “a visionary artist of the junkyard…who made metal scraps into magnificent things that twirled and jangled and clattered when he set them out on his land.”
Simpson’s monumental, fanciful, wind-driven creations-popularly called “whirligigs” – have been appreciated by millions of people in art museums and other venues. In 2013 they were named North Carolina’s official folk art.
Simpson’s fame came near the end of his life. He was born in 1919 to a farming family with 12 children. As a boy, he helped his father supplement the family income by moving houses. This somewhat unusual occupation called upon age-old techniques of fulcrum, leverage and rollers, and the Simpson side business spanned the years of horse power transitioning to automotive power.
He served in the Army Air Corps during WWII with duty on the South Pacific island of Saipan. The isolated troops struggled to keep uniforms clean so Simpson experimented with rudimentary windmill technology using a junked B-29 bomber to power a large washing machine.
After the war, Simpson partnered with several friends to open a machinery repair shop. As the years passed, Simpson followed in his father’s footsteps and developed a house-moving side to the business. During both jobs, he began to collect odd machinery parts, industrial salvage, transportation supplies, and other useful objects that he didn’t want to go to waste.
After retiring at 65, he started tinkering around with his collection of odd parts. 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.
The field of these “whirligigs” soon began attracting the attention of local people, and after the rise of the Internet, visitors from out-of-state. Without any official advertising, Simpson’s farm became one of Wilson County’s top tourism destinations.
The Whirligigs incorporate 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 support and moving parts.
Simpson cut decrepit road signs into one-inch and larger squares so that the whirligigs would be reflective at night.
Images inside the whirligigs are farm animals and people; references to Simpson’s experiences, such as the many WWII era airplanes; lumberjacks sawing wood; and a guitar player based on Simpson’s son.
In 2010, a plan was announced to create the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Historic Downtown Wilson. Simpson died in 2013 at 94, but not before seeing the first of his creations installed in the park that bears his name.