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I was speaking with someone this week about a local artist I hadn't thought about in awhile and I got to pondering why this was the case.  (Since I'd been thinking about local folk or outsider artists lately this seemed a natural choice for me to write about this time out also.) The sculptor's name is Vollis Simpson and he's become especially well known nationally in the past decade or so for his giant whirligigs. These are windmill-like contraptions that he builds in his garage in tiny Lacama, North Carolina. Vollis is a retired machinist so he has the know how (plus the requisite shop space and importantly a serious tool collection) to build such things and for the most part, they are some pretty large and intricate constructions. Perhaps I've just taken these artworks for granted as they are accommodating, crowd pleasing, a hit with the kids, and actually just plain fun to watch. Every time I see one of these whirligigs I get a small inkling of what it must have been like to see Calder performing with his circus back in the day. It's like catching a maestro at the top of his game; in this case one with a welding torch in hand and metal grinder in the other. 

There is always an element of kinetic anticipation with these sculptures since for all their lightheartedness and carnival-like whimsy they are actually very precisely balanced and engineered; constructed to spin even in very slight winds. It is easy to be transported back to childhood memories of kites and handheld windmills when you look at Vollis's work because they in fact conjure up all these associations. Hand built, home made toys cobbled together for an afternoon's enjoyment come to mind but most particularly they exemplify flights of fancy straight from the imagination of a child.  To get an idea of what one of these looks like, picture a triangulated metal truss painted up in red, white, and blue and decked out with small cup shaped propellers, reflectors, metal cut out figure shapes, fan blades, and festive spirals that project up and about.  This truss is typically perched upon a metal post directly proportional in height to the whirligig's overall size (i.e. the larger the truss then the taller the post.)  There is often a large propeller shape at the front end and a vertical wind vane-like tail at the rear to help the whole construction spin on its axis and orient itself to the best winds.  There is always with these whirligigs a guarantee of a multitude of shapes and colors glittering and spinning in harmony at the whim of the breeze all through the day. 

One of Vollis's more spectacular whirligigs which is at least the size of a Volkswagen rises magnificently up on a tall column base sited along the sculpture walk that circles the North Carolina Museum of Art. The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has an equally large whirligig prominently sited just outside their main entrance and it is effective as an eye-catching announcement to potential museum-goers that a different type of art is housed there.  Downtown Raleigh is actually the beneficiary of 3 small whirligigs that reside in a tiny little park near Moore Square. Unfortunately this park (and especially the artwork) is so woefully underutilized that it is actually cordoned off by a high metal fence circling its entire perimeter. The park space is likely to be part of the redevelopment associated with Raleigh's downtown renaissance and the ongoing building boom which is bringing a plethora of new mixed-use construction (and some much need housing) to the downtown scene.  Along with all this is the great hope of enhanced vitality for the downtown scene.  The whirligigs in such a scenario don't really stand a chance against the promise of bona fide leasable square footage and the lure of restored retail spaces long-lost to the suburbs.  much needed retail and teeming with retail and anxious shoppers (or this is how certain hopefuls see it) eager to try the newly rechristened downtown shoso they seem up for grabs.

What my companion and I actually talked about was Vollis's extensive collection of original whirligigs scattered abouts his property in Lacama and how they've weathered over time.  The artist has been at it now for a good couple of decades and some of his first sculptures have been out in the elements since then.  They've gotten a little creaky as a result and we were contemplating this fact as my companion had been fortunate enough to see some of the early whirligigs when they were brand new and freshly installed outside Vollis's garage workshop.  Their movement, he told me, was flawless and silent; like a fine tuned machine motoring along with the breeze.  Part of their awe was seeing the whimsy and crudity of some of the cut-out sheet metal figures and windmill blades contrast with superb engineering allowing their high degree of wind-blown performance.  Would the artist be amenable to restoring his constructions to such a state of super-smooth efficiency if asked?  Or would he instead prefer their weathered appearance acquired over time in situ?  It struck me as an odd pair of juxtapositions: one set of folk art sculptures whose only real problem is that they have simply been outside now at the artist's home for quite awhile now and have consequently suffered pm;u at the hand of Mother Nature, and another trio of small whirligig cousins whose only crime is that they sit on some now highly valued land deemed much more appropriate for something other than a teeny-tiny urban park that no one can enter or use.  



May 9, 2008 10:21 PM | | Comments (1)



Hi Dave,
Nice article. Was wondering if I could copy it to my blog next week. Matt is brother :-)

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