Thursday, May 19, 2011

Field Trip: Vollis Simpson & the Whirligig Farm

Vollis attaching the mini whirligig to the doggie we bought

Vollis Simpson is 92 years old. When Albert and I visited him last week, he was in his workshop, making sculptures.

Earlier in the week, I visited the art park at NCMA. They have a gigantic Vollis Simpson whirligig in a field. It's one of their most famous pieces. Little did I know that I would be meeting this man in a few days.

Thanks to my Roadside America app (which I swear by!), I learned that Simpson lives in Lucama, NC, about 30 or 40 minutes outside of Raleigh (where NCMA stands). Albert and I packed up the car on a Monday morning and drove to Lucama, which is in the middle of nowhere.

After driving down some pretty desolate farm roads, we turned a corner and Albert said, "wow!!!", mouth agape. Gigantic forms of whirligigs began to appear, and we're talking about really tall and colorful structures.

the view from the road, going towards the whirligigs

Albert taking it in. The whirligigs tower above him.

After taking it all in and [attempting] to explore the area, we noticed a humming noise coming from Simpson's workshop. The place is kind of intimidating, and apparently he has a lot of problems with people trespassing and stealing his items, because there are "No Trespassing" "Keep Out" signs spray painted all over the place.

sculptures near Simpson's studio (left, not pictured)

Whirligigs outside of Vollis' workshop


Disregarding the signs and going out on a limb, Albert and I crept closer to the workshop. We saw Vollis and waved & he invited us to come talk with him. I must admit that for being such a whimsical artist, he sure is an old grump!


Simpson was sitting on his porch, making sculptures of dogs out of bolts and screws, and each dog was, er, well endowed. "When women come to visit my studio, they usually like the boy doggies", he told us. "I sold three to a woman last week 'cause she liked them so much".

He graciously let us into his studio to take a look, after we promised not to touch anything. It was jam-packed with all sorts of colorful items. I guess as time went on, he just made so much stuff he couldn't get to the back of the studio/shed anymore. In the far, far back were his oldest items, and his more current artwork was towards the front.

The white cat made me feel homesick

view of Vollis working from the shed

He said that the property that the whirligigs are on is his family's. A beautiful, small lake intersects it, creating lush, green grass that compliment the faded whirligigs.


tops of the hulking whirligigs

By 2012, the nearby town of Wilson plans to have removed his sculptures to restore and install them in the city. "They're just gonna mess everything up", Vollis told us. "I installed those myself over ten years. Nobody knows how to do it. They'll just screw it up." I laughed because I totally empathize with this statement. In fact, I think most artists feel this way.

We ended up purchasing an original Vollis Simpson "endowed" doggie, complete with a mini red, white, and blue whirligig on his tail. "Now, don't put it outside because someone will steal it. If you put it in your house, it might spin when you walk by", he warned us. "Someone will steal it", he concluded. I felt like he was speaking from experience.

one of Simpson's non-whirligig sculptures, on a corner near his workshop



Albert and I pose for a photo with Vollis, holding our artwork we purchased from him

From Windmills to Whirligigs is a great resource for learning more about Vollis. PBS' Off the Map has featured Simpson on their show. You can learn more about the relocating of Simpson's whirligigs to Wilson here. The American Visionary Art Museum also has a blurb about Simpson. And, lastly, if you're in Downtown Atlanta any time soon, Simpson had 4 whirligigs installed there for the olympics in 1996 on the folk art bridge.

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