The Story

Wilson, North Carolina’s story has captivated the imagination of the country. Farm machinery repairman, Vollis Simpson, began making gigantic kinetic sculptures at his family farm in Wilson County when he was nearing retirement age. He kept making his “whirligigs”–seven days a week–until about six months before he dies at the age of 94 in May of 2013. By that time he was famous. The story of Wilson’s campaign to use the renowned whirligigs to recharge its downtown has catapulted the community into the national spotlight. Grants from ArtPlace America, the Kresge Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts have helped the project come close to its goal of opening the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum.

The Back Story

The field of these “whirligigs” was 11 miles outside the City of Wilson and already attracted the attention of local people.  After the rise of the Internet, visitors from out-of-state made their way to Vollis’ farm too. Without any advertising, Simpson’s farm became one of Wilson County’s top tourism destinations. His work began to be discovered by art collectors. At the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland you will find his 55-foot-tall, 45-foot-wide “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” on permanent display.  His works are part of several other collections, including the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan and once featured in a popular window installation at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store.

As Simpson’s health declined he wasn’t able to grease or paint the 40′-50′ tall sculptures that were made from recycled industrial parts and endured rain, sun, and hurricanes for thirty years. It became clear that without intervention, Wilson’s number one attraction would soon disappear. In 2010, a plan was announced to create the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Historic Downtown Wilson. Simpson was delighted that his work would survive and continue to delight people for generations to come. He was assisting in the effort to relocate the whirligigs to a downtown warehouse where they are being restored, rebuilt in some cases, and repainted. By the time the park is complete, 30 whirligigs, some standing 50 feet tall or more, will be transported, restored and installed.

A Grassroots Movement is Born

Fortunately a lot of people in Wilson (and all over the world) love Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs. They banded together to save them. Their plan is to rescue the whirligigs and the city at the same time–the whole package.

In the process, Wilson became a national model for creative placemaking. Cities all over the Untied States are rallying around their best arts assets to create the hearts of large and small cities. Here’s how the National Endowment for the Arts describes it:

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structure and streetscapes, improves business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

– Markusen and Gadwan, Creative Placemaking Report

By leveraging one of Wilson’s most unique cultural assets into an economic engine of entrepreneurial job creation and tourism, the Wilson community will add vibrancy to its Historic Downtown.

Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum is part of a public/private partnership that includes City of Wilson, Wilson Downtown Properties, Wilson Downtown Development Corporation, and others. A massive effort is underway to document, repair, and conserve the whirligigs, which have suffered from nearly 30 years of exposure to the elements. Add to that the fact that they were all originally constructed of recycled and salvaged parts, throw in a few hurricanes and summer humidity, and you have a perfect storm of conservation needs. Fortunately, the project has the advice of respected conservator Ron Harvey. Juan Logan, retired UNC Chapel Hill professor and acclaimed artist. Dennis Montagna from the National Parks Service, and others from the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and DuPont, we well as a National Advisory Board. New protocols for conservation of outdoor folk art and vernacular artist environments have been established through this project’s pioneering process.

In 2016 the Kohler Foundation became a partner in the project, which allowed for the completion of the conservation efforts.