Tributes and media coverage abounded with the passing of Vollis Simpson, whose giant whirligigs attracted art lovers and curiosity seekers from all over the world to a pasture on his Lucama farm. The New York Times reported the news as did the Associated Press, whose article was picked up by media across the country, from the Denver Post to the Miami Herald, plus CBS and NBC News. Simpson died May 31 at age 94.
“He took his work ethic and experience and created something that is pure joy,” N.C. Sec. of Cultural Resources Susan Kluttz said. Wilson is set to open the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park this fall, which is a great example of arts-driven economic development to bring in jobs and tourism, she said.
Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, commissioned Simpson to build a 55-foot, 3-ton whirligig for the museum’s opening in 1995. Hoffberger has high praise for Simpson. “America has only a handful of old-timers, great visionary artists who will be legends,” she said. Vollis Simpson is one of them.
“What Vollis was doing mechanically, creatively and artistically is unparalleled,” said Folklorist Jefferson Currie. “He worked on a scale that was a lot larger than anyone else. And even in that scale, he had a lot of intricacy. And I think that’s one of the things people recognized. They also saw the whimsy and the happiness in his pieces. They told stories – stories of community, of his time in World War II, of his love of airplanes. People who see them for the first time, there’s this sense of wonder, and it’s kind of overwhelming. It’s hard to get your head around how one man could create all of this.”
Just last month, the N.C. House, inspired by Simpson’s art, moved toward naming whirligigs as the state’s official folk art. In 2011, he put on a tuxedo and went to Raleigh to accept the state’s biggest honor bestowed on a civilian: the North Carolina Award. And later this year, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is scheduled to open in Wilson.