Mister Whirligig —by Jinny Batterson
Recently, on my way to a weekend conference along North Carolina’s coast, I made a slight detour to stop in the former tobacco auction center of Wilson, North Carolina. It was my third visit to this once-thriving, then derelict bastion of the tobacco industry, struggling to be reborn in a post-industrial, post-tobacco-auction age.
Brick mansions with Greek-revival columns testify to Wilson’s former wealth. Vacant warehouses and storefronts bear witness to its doldrums. The town is about fifty miles east of Raleigh, at the far edge of commuting distance, but near major interstates. Its status as the county seat of a county by the same name brings some enduring activity—court cases, law offices, merchants of bail bonds. Population has stabilized at about 50,000 people, by far the largest town in this county named for a childless military man whose 1840’s exploits in a war with Mexico were ended by a fatal bout of yellow fever.
What I came to see was a new park near the center of Wilson’s downtown: the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. Mr. Simpson, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, had for much of his life made fanciful sculptures out of scrap metal and pieces left over from the heavy equipment repair business that he ran from a small shop a few miles out of Wilson. After he closed his repair business, he turned his attention more fully to the sculptures he began to call windmills. Although his efforts sometimes drew the derision of his neighbors, Simpson continued to fashion larger and larger windmills with more and more moving parts, installing many of them around a small lake on his family’s property.
I first became aware of them when an acquaintance with ties to Wilson led a small group of us to view Simpson’s pond and the windmills planted along its edges. Mr. Simpson, then in his late 80’s, was working in his open-air shop at the far side of the pond. We saw him in profile at a distance, but an abundance of no trespassing signs made it clear that he did not welcome casual visitors.
Over time, Simpson’s “whirligigs” became a local, then regional tourist attraction. His variety of folk art drew the attention of art collectors and museums. A Whirligig graces the grounds of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Others have been purchased by museums and private collectors in many parts of the U.S.
Before Mr. Simpson died, local movers and shakers approached him about making his sculptures into an outdoor exhibition. According to Simpson’s obituary in the New York Times, Simpson relished the thought that some of his artworks would be preserved. He helped consult on the beginnings of removal and refurbishment of the pieces that eventually became the park. Vollis Simpson died before the park became a reality. Vagaries of weather, funding, and politics delayed the park’s opening for several years. The 2017 autumn day when I got to visit was gloriously clear and crisp, with just enough breeze to set most of the whirligigs to whirling. Though I’d missed the park’s grand opening by a day, the vision I got of Mr. Simpson’s legacy brightened my outlook. It also lit up the faces of other visitors of all ages who viewed the park in person or via modern internet links.
It’s much too easy these days to get caught up in the political crises and name-calling of the moment. I like to think that Vollis Simpson’s spirit would be gratified at the way his creations beckon us toward less bluster and more whimsy. Thank you, Mr. Whirligig!