Posts Tagged ‘Lucama’

His wonderful whirligig world

April 22, 2010

Vollis Simpson in his backyard whirligig park in Lucama, N.C., in 2005

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.

Vollis cuts a propeller out metal

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.

A tabletop whirligig

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.

Vollis tests a tabletop whirligig in his workshop

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.