Vollis Simpson, internationally known visionary artist and master of the whirligig, died in his sleep at his home in Lucama, N.C. on Friday night. He was 94.
Simpson’s monumental windmill sculptures, many more than 40 feet tall, are made from reused machine parts, huge rigs used for moving houses, scrap metal and thousands of tiny reflectors. The North Carolina Museum of Art and the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, among others, have Simpson whirligigs on their grounds. Four were installed in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games.
But Simpson rarely left his eastern North Carolina property. Thousands of art lovers and seekers of the weird have made pilgrimages there over the years. It was a jaw-dropping sight. The whirligigs loomed up out of the rural landscape, physically competing with loblolly pines. On windy days one had to shout over the din of gigantic wheels spinning. At night, when one’s headlights caught the reflectors, his field transformed into something resembling Coney Island.
The luckiest of visitors enjoyed an audience with Simpson himself, often while he was steering an old road sign through a band saw or cutting whimsical animal shapes out of sheet metal. The artist—a term he scoffed at—would let you rummage through his barn studio full of smaller-scale windmills for purchase.
Over the last several years, the large whirligigs on his property have been painstakingly dismantled for refurbishment. They’ll be installed at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in downtown Wilson, N.C., slated to open in November.
An intuitive engineer, Simpson made his first windmill while stationed on Saipan during World War II. The makeshift contraption powered his Air Force unit’s washing machine. After returning home to Lucama, he made a living moving houses and repairing engines. Simpson didn’t begin making whirligigs until his mid-60s.
He gained recognition as "outsider art," also called visionary art or folk art, captured the attention of collectors and curators. Simpson’s name fits with famous self-taught figures like Henry Darger, Adolf Wölfli and Howard Finster. He was ambivalent about, if not amused by, his fame.
The North Carolina House passed a measure last month naming the whirligig as the state’s official folk art.