Vollis Simpson, Visionary Artist of the Junkyard, Dies at 94
Jeremy Lange for The New York Times
Published: June 5, 2013
Vollis Simpson, who made metal scraps into magnificent things that twirled and jangled and clattered when he set them out on his land, and who did so long before anyone started calling them whirligigs or him an artist, died on Friday at his home in Lucama, N.C. He was 94.
Jeremy Lange for The New York Times
His death was confirmed by his wife, Jean.
Asked how her husband could visit a junkyard, gather odd objects and eventually produce a rocket ship or a guitar player or a team of horses pulling a carriage across the sky of eastern North Carolina and make it all look as natural as the breeze that animated it, Ms. Simpson explained, “It was just in his mind and in his brain and it just came out.”
By the end of his life Mr. Simpson had become an art star. His 55-foot-tall, 45-foot-wide “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is on permanent display at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and his works are part of several other collections, including the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan.
In Wilson, N.C., about 10 miles from Lucama, that city plans to open the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park this fall to display many of the artist’s most ambitious works.
“By leveraging one of Wilson’s most unique cultural assets into an economic engine of entrepreneurial job creation and tourism, the Wilson community will add vibrancy to its historic downtown,” the park’s Web site said. “The Whirligig Park is the catalyst needed to propel Wilson into 21st-century competitiveness and quality of place.” For nearly a decade the city has held the Wilson Whirligig Festival in honor of Mr. Simpson. It replaced the Golden Leaf Festival, which celebrated the history of tobacco in Wilson.
Mr. Simpson did not set out to make art.
“He did it for his own pleasure in the beginning,” Ms. Simpson said. “It caught on and people liked it. It went from there.”
For decades he ran a machine shop in Lucama, where he repaired heavy equipment and came up with customized devices for moving houses and towing large trucks. By the 1970s he had begun his grand repurposing.
“Didn’t call it nothing,” Mr. Simpson said in an interview with The New York Times in 2010. “Just go to the junkyard and see what I could get. Went by the iron man, the boat man, the timber man. Ran by every month. If they had no use for it, I took it.”
He installed his creations on his family’s farm. He eventually called them windmills. Curators now call them outsider art or visionary art, and regard Mr. Simpson’s work as distinctive interpretations of the old mechanical toys known as whirligigs.
“Everybody made fun of me and laughed at me,” Mr. Simpson said in a documentary paid for by the North Carolina Arts Council. “I didn’t pay ’em no damn mind.”
Ms. Simpson declined to specify her husband’s date of birth, but she said that his parents were farmers and that he lived his entire life in Wilson County. He was one of 12 children, and he was expected to work as a child.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Simpson’s survivors include three children and four grandchildren.
Mr. Simpson left school after the 11th grade. He built his first windmill to power a large washing machine for soldiers’ clothing while he was serving in the Pacific during World War II in the Army Air Corps. He made it from parts of a junked B-29 bomber.
Some of his windmills would eventually sell for thousands of dollars. Late in life he worried about what would happen to his menagerie at home.
“I guess it’ll just rust and fall down when I’m gone,” he said.
He was pleased when Wilson announced it would build the park, and he played a consulting role as works were moved to a storage site for restoration.
“He wanted them to be saved and refurbished so they could go on forever,” Ms. Simpson said, “or for a long, long time.”