Update: Rest in peace, Vollis Simpson, who died at home in Lucama, N.C., on May 31, 2013, at the age of 94.
The recent article in the New York Times about our North Carolina treasure Vollis Simpson reminded me of our trip the the whirligig master’s home a few years ago. Hard to believe that Vollis is now 91 and still whirligigging! Here’s what I wrote on Nov. 12, 2005, for my (still ongoing) Who & Ware column in the News & Observer:
The state fair left Raleigh a couple weeks ago, but there’s a midway of sorts you can see year-round over in Wilson County.
The display, plucked down amid pine trees and tobacco and cotton fields, is a startling sight if you’re unprepared. The sky suddenly fills with a carnival of contraptions, some of which resemble Ferris wheels, carousels, and kids rides. Colorful parts move excitably in the breeze while the sounds from dozens of spinning wheels clatter and click out a wind-powered melody.
The mastermind of this handmade midway is Vollis Simpson, 86, a lifelong resident of Lucama, a tiny town in western Wilson County about 50 miles east of Raleigh. For more than a decade now, the curious and the collectors have come from near and far to come visit Simpson’s “whirligig farm.”
Simpson, known nationally, has large-scale pieces in Raleigh, Greensboro, Atlanta, Baltimore, and downtown Wilson. He’s been written about in national magazines and had a documentary made about him. Last year USA Today listed his farm among the “10 Great Places to Sample Quirky Americana.”
Simpson, a lifetime tinkerer, machine shop owner by trade, and artist in “retirement” seems to take his fame in stride. You can ask him yourself if you stop by his workshop near the intersection of Wiggins Mill Road and Willing Worker Road. You’ll have to maneuver through a few piles of metal, fans, fan blades, bicycle wheels, buckets, radiator covers, and more to reach his work space.
While Simpson might be one of North Carolina’s most famous “outsider,” or untrained, artists, he’s no recluse. He’s also not full of himself. When responding to “Hi, you must be Vollis Simpson,” he answered, “Yep, what’s left of me.”
We visited on a Sunday afternoon, and, as usual, Simpson was working. He wiped the smudge off his large, lined hands with a rag and held one out for a shake. He advised his visitors to speak up, as he doesn’t hear so well these days.
Simpson, wearing his usual jeans and a plaid shirt speckled with paint, led us into his field of dreams. His bigger works are worth $10,000 and up. (Not that they’re for sale, though he does still fill custom orders.) He also has a shed full of smaller pieces for the tabletop and yard that he sells from $100 to $200.
For its centennial this year, Wilson commissioned a dozen large whirligigs. Five of those now dot downtown and the others are in the works. (Two are at the intersection of Tarboro and Nash streets.)
The house Simpson shares with Jean, his wife of 58 years, sits back behind the field holding the whirligigs. One son, Michael, a mail carrier, lives in a separate house on the family property, the same farm Simpson and his 11 siblings were raised on. His daughter, Carol Kyles, a social worker, lives up the street, and his other son, Leonard, a TV newscaster, lives in Greensboro.
Simpson’s first wind machine was built during World War II. “To wash clothes I fixed me a little motor for a washing machine,” he said, as if a wind-powered washer built from B-29 parts was nothing special. Not until retirement did he make another whirligig. “I worked 30 years and didn’t build the first one. But when I stopped work, I couldn’t sit down in the house and watch television,” he said.
Gazing skyward, Simpson looked at the complex works filled with metal parts. His favorite, he said, is the one with a wagon, driver, and horses, all moveable pieces. And though he might be the one to put the parts together, but “the old master does the movement,” he declared.
The Simpsons don’t keep track of how many visitors stop by, but they note that they’re from all over the world. “Last we week we had about 200 motorcycles,” he said. “That was quite a sight.”
One of their favorite folks is Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, who occasionally stops by on the drive to Atlanta, where she has relatives. The museum, which specializes in outsider art, has two commissioned pieces from Simpson, one weighing in at 6,000 pounds. Hoffberger can’t speak highly enough of Vollis and Jean.
“There are not enough positive adjectives to describe them,” said Hoffberger, who has invited the couple to Baltimore for the museum’s 10th anniversary celebration in January. “Vollis is world class,” she said. “He’s among a tiny handful of premiere visionary artists. I think Calder would be smitten with him,” Hoffberger added, referring to the late kinetic sculptor Alexander Calder. “One of the things I love so much about Vollis is he doesn’t watch himself be an artist. It’s just the joy of creation,” she said. “There are many farmers across America who have made windmills, but the scale in which he played with the winds and his playfulness being so personal, his sense of color, his whole consuming passion with it, you rarely see that level of creativity or productivity.”
Simpson said he’s not sure if he‘ll make a second visit to Baltimore, not being the traveling type. (The first trip there was by bus with about 60 kin, he said.) And though he’s relatively healthy, he’s had had some close calls the past couple years. He had quadruple bypass surgery two years ago, and earlier this year he was injured when his shirt caught on fire while he was welding.
“I’ve caught fire 100 times. But that one slipped up on me,” he said. He was hospitalized in a burn unit and now does physical therapy with his arms and hands. “It’s tough to button my shirt,” said Simpson, who doesn‘t let little things like stiffness and pain get in the way. “I don’t let it bother me. I’m blessed to be alive.”
Simpson still hand cuts all his metal but says the painting is more labor intensive than anything else. He favors primary colors, especially red and blue, and sometimes he adds adornments, such as kitschy bowling trophies. “I primed 15 small pieces this morning,” he said. “I usually paint until suppertime.”
Visitors can browse through the hundreds of small whirligigs vying for space inside his shop. The “showroom” is lit by only a few naked bulbs hanging from a wire below the ceiling. Aside from the works commissioned by Wilson, Simpson focuses on the smaller pieces these days. “You start something big and die and nobody knows what to do with it,” he said.
Simpson’s whirligig farm is at the intersection of Wiggins Mill Road and Willing Worker Road in Lucama, NC.