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Folk artist Vollis Simpson dies at 94
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Folk artist Vollis Simpson dies at 94




Vollis Simpson, whose giant whirligigs attracted art lovers and curiosity seekers from all over the world to a pasture on his Lucama farm, died Friday evening at home.

"He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up,” said his wife, Jean.

Simpson, 94, had heart valve replacement in Baltimore in February. Jean Simpson said the surgery was a success, but other complications wore him down.

Simpson was famous in art circles in this state and far beyond.

Just last month, the N.C. Legislature, 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, Wilson is set to open the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

"We were all very proud of him, and we’re still proud of him,” Jean Simpson said.

 

SIMPSON THE ARTIST

From an old workshop chair situated so he could see what was going on down the road, Simpson created his art and entertained people from this country and beyond who beat a path to his farm.

He sat down and talked to them, told them jokes and let them see the scraps of metal he turned into art. He’d also sell them a whirligig if they asked. And he always wore a baseball cap and old jeans.

He’d stay at the workshop most of the day, welding, piddling, painting or doing whatever came up.

A World War II veteran, former house mover, mechanic and farmer, Simpson started making his windmills about 30 years ago.

He had a lot of leftover junk from his business and didn’t want to throw it away. So he made the first whirligig and put it in his pasture.

"When I built it, I didn’t know anything about art; I still don’t,” he said in a 2010 interview.

But the art world recognized the significance of his folk art pieces, some of which grew to 60-feet tall.

Part of the charm of the whirligigs came from their construction. Simpson placed reflectors all over his whirligigs. And when people drove by the pasture at night, their car headlights illuminated the reflectors.

Soon, word spread about Simpson’s whirligigs, and before long, he started getting commissions to build his giant structures. His commissions included the N.C. Museum of Art, the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

His whirligigs were also placed throughout downtown Wilson, where the Whirligig Festival is held each November in his honor.

In 2010, Simpson decided to sell more than 30 of his large whirligigs and more than 50 small-scale pieces to create the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, which will be located on Goldsboro Street.

Since that time, whirligigs have been moved to a large warehouse in downtown Wilson where they are being restored and readied for installation.

Selling the whirligigs wasn’t an easy decision for Simpson, who had built and installed them and enjoyed looking at them. But they were in bad shape. The once vivid reds and blues were fading, and they were rusting and needed oiling. Others needed repair. Simpson, who was 91 at the time, could no longer do the hard work they required.

"I can’t climb and look after them like I should,” he said at the time. But he took solace in the fact that someone would be caring for them.

"And that’s taken a lot off me,” he said.

With the whirligig park’s inception, the art world once again took notice of Simpson’s work and has come through with numerous grants for the park, including a $500,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation and a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace, working with the National Endowment for the Arts and seven federal agencies. The park also received a $250,000 NEA Our Town grant.

At the time of the park’s inception, Brendon Greaves with the N.C. Arts Council said Simpson’s whirligigs are popular because they are easily understood and enjoyed by people of all ages.

"Their function is to attract and delight the viewer, and I think they are extremely successful in doing that,” he said in a 2010 interview.

He added that people in Wilson County probably take the whirligigs for granted and don’t realize how much they are revered in other places.

"It’s become scenery instead of the vital cultural landscape that it is,” he said.

 

LEGACY WILL LIVE ON

Barry Page, executive director of the Arts Council of Wilson, had nothing but respect for Simpson and enjoyed working with him on projects.

Simpson’s whirligigs were often featured in the Arts Center, and many times local artists chose him or his whirligigs as the subject of their own photographs and paintings.

"He was a Wilson County man who was part of the greatest generation. He had tinkered all of his life and did something that became ours. He was one of a kind.”

Page said he was delightful to sit and talk to and would have talked to a king the same way he talked to anyone in Wilson County.

"He was wonderful.”

Page said Simpson made the whirligigs for all of us to enjoy.

"People in Wilson County will never get over Vollis Simpson,” Page said. "We will carry him with us for the rest of our lives and his legacy will go on with those who come after.

"He was just that genuine.”

Simpson watched the progress of the whirligig restoration and saw the hard work that was going on in the warehouse. He was pleased that his windmills were being cared for and looked forward to seeing them in a new pasture.

"I’d love to see them,” he said in a 2010 interview. "I probably won’t live that long.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Joyner’s Funeral Home.

 

lisa@wilsontimes.com | 265-7810
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View Comments:Show/Hide(18 comments)
articha king said...

looking at the windmills was a delight for me when i was growing up on wiggins mill road......thanx 4 the memories Mr Vollis...#gonebutnot4gotten.....

Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 12:50 PM
Feda Bain said...

That's not the point. Plus the park is in a horrible location.
They should turn the Wilson shopping mall into an arts center and whirligig museum.

Saturday, June 08, 2013 at 11:40 PM
@feda bain said...

And I know an empty argument when I see one. Call the council and volunteer your efforts to the park; it would be much appreciated and what better way to honor the man.

Friday, June 07, 2013 at 8:55 AM
Grateful said...

Thank you to the visionaries who saw this wonderful art and took the necessary steps to preserve it for all of us before it was too late. I always enjoyed seeing Mr. Simpson. He was indeed a treasure. Peace to his family.

Friday, June 07, 2013 at 7:58 AM
Feda Bain said...

I know an empty lot when I see one.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 at 5:05 PM
@feda said...

Get involved. You'll see why it takes so long. To help alleviate any tax burden on Wilson there are people seeking grants which take a long time to write and submit. It also takes a long time for approvals, permits, bids, safety requirements, zoning, land evaluation, surveying, etc. etc. If only it were simple enough to just put up a whirligig in an open field. But curious as to why seemingly you speak negatively about our leadership? You know something about why its taking so long that we don't??

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 at 8:00 AM Feda Bain said...

So why hasn't the whirligig park been built yet? Why is it taking so long? Are Wilson's esteemed leaders just going to talk about it forever?

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 at 9:12 PM RIP said...

One thing I liked about him was that he didn't do the hobby/craft/art for anyone to like or buy it. He did it because he loved it and it made him happy. Sometimes if we would all do that, we just might enjoy life more. If people love your work or think it is "art" that is just a bonus on top. Condolences to his family.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013 at 10:41 AM Tabble said...

He hasn't died. He just whirled away.

Monday, June 03, 2013 at 6:45 PM AHHHHH said...

I bet when he got to the pearlie gates of heaven there was a whirligig on each side. RIP Mr. Vollis!!

Monday, June 03, 2013 at 11:53 AM Gwen Dixie said...

Loved your art every where I saw it. Whirl on up to heaven, Mr. Vollis.

Sunday, June 02, 2013 at 1:24 PM Billy Prickett said...

Mr. Simpson created something that was part of my growing up. I'm sure others made the trip to the country years ago and got spooked out by what we called Acid Park at night. My wife and I even visited one night when we first started dating about 7 years ago. Something we still talk about to this day. Thanks for the great memories Mr. Simpson. The best artist are not taught they are expressed. Mr. Simpson was a true artist. Heaven is going to get a little more beauty with some Volis Simpson whirligigs.

Sunday, June 02, 2013 at 11:11 AM Lori Taylor Edwards said...

Rest in peace Uncle Vollis. You will always be remembered.

Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 2:30 PM A FAN said...

It seems as though he loved his hobby and lived a very long life. He passed away the same as he lived,,,,,(IN PEACE) Our condolence to his wife and family.

Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 12:51 PM Elaine Forman said...

May God bless and comfort the family and all of Wilson. North Carolina mourns the passing of a creative and unique individual. He willingly shared his life information with Homeschoolers Unfolding History Groups. It was a joy to hear him talk.
He will be missed

Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 11:11 AM Kathooper said...

I am so saddened to hear of the passing of Vollis... My pressures are with Mrs Simpson, Carol, and the family... He had a greasy legacy that will live on...

Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 8:41 AM ??? said...

REST IN PEACE MR. SIMPSON. YOUR ART WILL LIVE FOREVER AS I'M SURE YOU BROUGHT SOME WITH YOU WHEN YOU MET THE MAN UP STAIRS.

Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 12:04 AM Paul Durham said...

Godspeed, Vollis

Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 11:56 PM
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