Vollis Simpson

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Vollis Simpson, April 19, 2011

Vollis Simpson (1919 – May 31, 2013)[1] was an American "outsider" folk artist known for large kinetic sculptures called "whirligigs", which Simpson made from salvaged metal. He lived and worked in Lucama, North Carolina. Many of his larger pieces are on display at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, North Carolina, about 10 miles from Lucama.

Life before art[edit]

Vollis Simpson was born in 1919 to Oscar and Emma Simpson of Spring Hill Township in Wilson County, North Carolina. According to his wife, Jean Simpson, he was 8th of 12 children.[2] He left school after the 11th grade.[3]

Because he was not attracted to being a farmer, Simpson worked at servicing the farm's equipment, the threshers, bailers, tractors, and pumps which are used in farming.[4]

Simpson served in the US Army Air Corps during World War II in the Pacific Theatre.[1] He demonstrated his intuitive engineering skills while stationed on Saipan in the Northern Marianas Islands, where he constructed a windmill out of parts from a junk B-29 Superfortress bomber to power a washing machine for his company.[5][6]

After the war, Simpson founded a house-moving operation with his brothers to supplement the income from the family farm. He designed and built much of the heavy equipment they used to move houses, creating a first of its kind crop sprayer.[2] He also ran a machine shop for decades.[3]

The 1940 United States Census shows Simpson living at home with his parents, two sisters – Hazell, four years older, Eldnir, five years younger – and a younger brother, Darvell. His occupation is listed as "farming".[7]

Whirligig Park in Wilson, North Carolina (2019)

Art career[edit]

One of Simpson's Whirligigs from the park in Wilson

Simpson retired at the age of 60, and began to build wind-driven structures which he called "windmills", but came to be called whirligigs.[4] He built a number of large whirligigs on his property in Lucama surrounding a pond across from his workshop. This was referred to by locals as "Acid Park" because of how the sculptures would reflect car headlights when people came out after dark.[8][9]

Simpson was commissioned to create a whirligig for the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The 55-foot (17 m) high, 45-foot (14 m) wide whirligig called "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" was installed for the museum's opening in November, 1995.[10][5][3] He was also commissioned to create whirligigs for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Four of his works were installed at the Olympic's Folk Art Park and remained there on permanent display.[11][12]

Other of Simpson's whirligigs have been exhibited at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia.[4] Some of his sculptures have sold for thousands of dollars.[3]


In 2004 Wilson, North Carolina held its first annual Wilson Whirligig Festival.[13] The festival was renamed in 2016 to the North Carolina Whirligig Festival,[14] and is usually held the first full weekend of November.[15] The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park was created in Wilson to document, conserve, and display the large sculptures from Simpson's land in Lucama.[16] The park had its grand opening on November 2, 2017.[17] Simpson acted as a consultant for the renovation of the whirligigs for display.

The North Carolina legislature recognized Simpson's contributions and in June 2013 designated Simpson's Whirligigs as the official folk art of North Carolina.[18][19][20]


Simpson died at his home in Lucama at the age of 94.[3]


"[I’ve been a] farmhouse mover, electric welder, carpenter, the list goes on. If you don't try something, you don't learn anything. Common sense. You come across a lot of these people that know so damn much, sometimes you find out they're dumber than I am..."[21]



  1. ^ a b Yardley, William (June 5, 2013). "Vollis Simpson, Visionary Artist of the Junkyard, Dies at 94". The New York Times. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  2. ^ a b Jean Simpson
  3. ^ a b c d e Yardley, William (June 5, 2013) "Vollis Simpson, Visionary Artist of the Junkyard, Dies at 94" The New York Times
  4. ^ a b c Informational sign at Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, Wilson, North Carolina
  5. ^ a b Shane, Scott (April 5, 2010). "Junkyard Poet of Whirligigs and Windmills". The New York Times. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  6. ^ "Vollis Simpson | South Writ Large". southwritlarge.com. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  7. ^ 1940 US Census Record
  8. ^ "Whirligig Park (Formerly Acid Park)". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  9. ^ Vitiello, Chris (June 5, 2013). "The extraordinary legacy of whirligig creator Vollis Simpson". Indy Week. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  10. ^ Cindy Kelly (3 May 2011). Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore: A Historical Guide to Public Art in the Monumental City. JHU Press. pp. 129–. ISBN 978-0-8018-9722-1.
  11. ^ "Olympic Notebook: Whirligigs headed for Atlanta". Battle Creek Enquirer. Battle Creek, Michigan,USA. Associated Press. June 19, 1996. p. 4B. Retrieved October 30, 2017 – via Newspapers.com. icon of an open green padlock
  12. ^ "The Atlanta Public Arts Legacy Fund: Folk Art Park". www.atlantapublicart.com. APAL Fund in care of The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  13. ^ "Profile of the City" (PDF). www.wilsonnc.org. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  14. ^ "Whirligig Festival goes statewide". The Wilson Times. Wilson, North Carolina, USA: Morgan Dickerman. August 7, 2016. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  15. ^ "North Carolina Whirligig Festival". www.wilsonnc.org. City of Wilson. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  16. ^ "Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park: The Story". The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  17. ^ Beth Velliquette, Beth (October 29, 2017). "Art in motion: Wilson prepares to open whirligig park". Reflector.com. Greenville, North Carolina, USA: Cooke Communications. Retrieved October 29, 2017.
  18. ^ http://www.wilsontimes.com/News/Feature/Story/22211292---N-C--House-honors-Vollis-SimpsonN.C. Legislature designates whirligigs as official folk art of North Carolina Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "North Carolina State Folk Art: Whirligigs,". www.netstate.com. NSTATE. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  20. ^ "General Assembly honors Simpson, designates new state icons". Newslink. North Carolina Department of Commerce. June 26, 2013. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  21. ^ PBS North Carolina Presents | Changes in the Wind | Season 2022 | PBS, retrieved 2022-08-01

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