Lesson 3: Using the Wind in Cultural Context

Many artists use the wind as part of their art making. This lesson challenges the participant to recognize the ways in which art that uses the wind can relate to an artist’s cultural context; it also invites the student to make a wind-powered artwork.

Read/View: Please view the image gallery at the bottom of this page. 

Congdon, Kristin G. and Hallmark, Kara Kelley. American Folk Art: A Regional Reference. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio. 296-297.

Vollis Simpson

(b. 1919)

Whirligig Environment Artist

Vollis Simpson is known for his large-scale whirligigs, and his amazing environment in his birthplace,the small, rural town of Lucama, North Carolina. His property is a dazzling sight in the daytime and atnight, when car headlights hit thousands of reflectors attached to the huge sculptural structures that movedelightfully with the breeze. Filling an acre of pasturelandby a crossroad, this environment is a colorfuldisplay of movement and sound. More than 30 whirligigs, weighing tons and up to 40 feet high, with hundredsof movable parts creak, rumble, and spin in thewind.

Simpson’s environment was created on the land where he and his wife, Jean, whom he married in 1947, live and raised two sons and a daughter. One of 12 children, Vollis finished the 11th grade.He worked on the family farm until he was drafted in 1941. When he was in the army and stationed at Saipan in the Mariana Islands, he made his first windmill to wash military uniforms. After this experience, he returned home from the service in 1945,fascinated with wind power. He began experimenting with harnessing the wind and generated electricity to heat his home with power from several handmade windmills. He began working as a mechanic and in 1950 opened up a shop to repair farm equipment and,as he explained, to build trailers, bodies, sprayers,anything the farmer needed” (Moses 1999, 120). Simpson also moved houses and heavy machinery. He views himself as a man who can do just about anything, from changing baby diapers to building all kinds of things, including numerous wreckers. Over the years, Simpson learned a lot about balance and how machines worked. Partly in an effort to keep busy, when he retired in the mid-1980s, he began making whirligigs in earnest. Around his workshop, which is a half-mile from his house, lay all kinds of leftover machine parts. It only made sense for him to tinker with them and build windmills. When he does not have the correct piece, he envisions it in his mind and goes searching for it.

Simpson referred tohis art materials as “articles too good to be thrown away” (Joel 1996, 3) instead ofjunk or industrial waste, and his whirligigs are madefrom all kinds of objects. These objects include bicyclewheels, license plates, reflectors, model airplanes,street signs, plumbing vents, surplus ball bearings,hubcaps, and various pieces of scrap metal. As someonewho hated to waste anything, he decided to put it all to use by making decorative whirligigs.

Many of his pieces depict a scene, such as a man sawing a log, riding a unicycle, or strumming a guitar. Birds take flight and dogs wag their tails. Airplanes fly by and numerous mules carry a loaded wagon.Propellers, wheels, and signage are ubiquitous. Usinga self-invented system of hoists and cranes he operatedwhen he pulled houses off their foundations, he is ableto place huge sections of his wind structures onto metalpoles. The whirligigs are painted with several coats ofbrightly colored paint, and the effect is highly playful. To help fund the costs of making larger wind sculptures, Simpson makes smaller ones that he sometimes sells to customers.

This engineering genius began constructing his wind machines mostly late in life, and the strenuousactivity of the work seemed to keep him strong during much of his adult life. For much of his life, he was strong as an ox, undeterred by a challenge, and unable to be anything but industrious.

For a long time, Simpson was known only in the local area. Then a photograph of one of his whirligigs hit an Atlanta newspaper. In 1996, he was hired to construct a whirligig for the Atlanta Olympics. He also created one for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, and his work hasbeen in several folk art exhibitions. But his whirligigs are best seen in their original environment. To experiencethe movement of the whirligigs, along with the moaning and clicking sounds they make, is to fully sense Simpson’s work. The artist builds them to move and perform. Seeing one is a treat; experiencing theenvironment as a whole is spectacular.

In 2010, when Simpson was 91 and too old to care for his environment, a plan was enacted to move 32 of the large whirligigs to a two-acre lot in downtown Wilson, North Carolina. Completion of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is slated for November 2012.

Bibliography

Joel, Jane M. “Vollis Simpson: The Don Quixote of East-Central North Carolina.” Folk Art Messenger9, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 1, 3.

From Windmills to Whirligigs.Science Museum of Minnesota. 1996. Accessed February 23, 2011.http://www.smm.org/sln/vollis/.

Ludwig, Kelly. Detour Art: Outside1; Folk Art, and Visionary Environments Coast to Coast: Art and Photographs from. the Collection of Kelly Ludwig.Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 2007.

Manley, Roger. Signs and Wonders: Outsider Art Inside North Carolina. Raleigh: North CarolinaMuseum of Art, 1989.

Manley, Roger, and Mark Sloan. Self-Made Worlds:Visionary Folk Art Environments. New York:Aperture, 1997.

Moses, Kathy. Outsider Art of the South. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1999.

Patterson, Tom. Not by Luck: Self-Taught Artists in the American South. Asheville, NC: Biltmore Press, 1993.

Rosenak, Chuck, and Jan Rosenak. With contributors Robert Bishop, Barbara Cate, and Lee Kogan. Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia ofTwentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990.

“Windmill Environment Preserved.” Raw Vision 70 (Fall/Autumn 2010): 12.

 

Vollis Simpson is an artist from Lucama, North Carolina in the United States who knows about the wind. He made dozens of large whirligigs on his property. Some of them are 40 feet high. When the wind blows, they make varying sounds as they turn. The scene is especially beautiful at night since Simpson uses reflectors that catch the moonlight. Like a kite flying in the sky, they create a kind of dance. How does Vollis Simpson’s work reflect his cultural background? How does Ha Yi Qi’s work reflect his cultural background? Write an essay explaining how the two artists both use their culture to create objects that work with the wind. Post your essay.

 

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