Vollis Simpson’s Whirligig Park to Move

(Thanks to Robert Long for letting me know about this article on the News Observer web site)
Vollis Simpson, 91, has made the whirligigs his life’s work. He and his wife, Jean, are selling 32 large pieces and 56 smaller ones for Wilson’s whirligig park for an undisclosed sum.
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Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs are movable sculptures powered by wind.
Now the city of Wilson is hoping that Simpson’s works will power the economic revival of its downtown.
On Friday, the N.C. Arts Council announced that 32 of Simpson’s large pieces will be moved from his home in Lucama to a two-acre site bordering Douglas, South and Goldsboro streets in downtown Wilson.
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Simpson, 91, is one of the state’s best-known artists. His work graces the outside of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and is part of the permanent collections of museums around the world. In Raleigh, visitors to the recently reopened N.C. Museum of Art can see one of his pieces on the art trail at the museum’s park.
Plans for The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park began taking shape about 18 months ago, project manager Janet Kagan said.
“There were a group of individuals in Wilson who thought that it was time to preserve the collection,” she said.
A committee was formed, and the group approached Simpson, who in the past was reluctant to let others work on the whirligigs, said Brandon Greaves, director of public art and community design with the N.C. Arts Council.
“He’s had a do-it-yourself attitude and thought he could take care of them himself,” Greaves said. “But it came to the point where he recognized that the works are his legacy, and it has become more difficult for him to look after them, maintain them and keep them safe.”
This way, Simpson can participate in preserving and repairing the pieces to the extent that he is able and has time to do so, Kagan said.
Many of the pieces are 35 to 50 feet tall and can weigh as much as 6 tons, Greaves said.
Simpson and his wife, Jean, agreed to the sell his works to a group called Wilson Downtown Properties.
Neither Kagan nor Greaves would say what the group will pay for the 32 large pieces as well as 56 smaller pieces that will be used as an educational component of the park. But a recent New York Times story on the artist said that his works can range from $125 for a little nuts-and-bolts piece to many thousands for his larger works.
The first phase of the project includes doing an inventory of the works and a documentary film about Simpson. The park is scheduled to be completed in November 2012.
Organizers are focused on planning the park and fundraising. A final budget hasn’t been determined, Kagan said.
No one is sure how long the conservation work will take or what it will cost, Greaves said. In addition, the park site needs to be prepared after the final design is approved.
Kimberly Van Dyk, who is involved in the project as director of development for the City of Wilson, said the park will be an anchor for the city’s downtown and a catalyst for further redevelopment.
“One can look to other cities and see how the arts have revitalized their economy,” she said. “Asheville is a prime example.”
Van Dyk said one of the first questions businesses ask before relocating is about the educational and cultural activities the region offers. The park, she said, will add to the area’s global competitiveness.
Simpson already helps the city and county economy, she said. Each year thousands come to the local whirligig festival, and Simpson’s field of art draws visitors from across the country to his home in Lucama.
“I was out there last week, and there was a very expensive vehicle that drove up with New York license plates. There were already people from Massachusetts there and another driving in from Virginia – all within the course of 45 minutes.
“His impact is ju
st going to be amplified when we conserve and publicize [his works],” she said.
Part of cultural economic development, she added, is “taking what’s authentic about a place and celebrating them and leveraging that asset. Vollis is 100 percent Wilson County, Eastern North Carolina. You can’t get any more authentic.”