A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A man poses in front of a large pole topped by a scuplture.

Image courtesy of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

“I got caught with a lot of material that I thought
I'd make some windmills.”
– Vollis Simpson

By Adam Kampe

Five years ago, I traveled to Wilson, North Carolina, to produce a story about a number of NEA grants the city received to restore dozens of mind-bending, yet worn down kinetic sculptures built by machinist-turned-artist, Vollis Simpson. The eventual goal was to create the two-acre Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, which local leaders hoped would help revitalize Historic Downtown Wilson while preserving Simpson’s unique works of art.

Upon arrival, I was instructed to meet my main point of contact at a garden party and art show. It wasn’t hard to find Henry Walston, a Mark Twain surrogate, clad in a white suit and the most dapper of hats. Words, like sung molasses, dripped from his mouth. Walston is the indefatigable visionary who got this restoration project off the ground. Born and raised in Wilson, he later gave me a guided tour of town, generously sharing nuggets of historical wisdom along the way. And then I got to work. Over two days, I spent hours documenting the workers and their work at the Vollis Simpson Conservation Headquarters. In all my years at the NEA, this on-site visit was the first time I got to see our funding in action and meet those who not only secured the grant, but were also impacted by the grant. I interviewed Simpson at his shop ten miles outside of town.

Under the hot southern sun, he told me: “Over ten years, I was out there practically every weekend, give or take a little bit on Sunday. Stayed with it. No help, period. Only help I had when I was well-digging, dug a hole for the horses. It was 16-foot deep. I dug the rest of it with a damn hole-digger.”

Simpson was no stranger to building things. In Saipan, where he served during WWII, he designed a machine that washed his fellow soldiers’ clothes and back home he built tankers and wreckers (tow-trucks). He began tinkering more and more with various pieces of leftover scrap metal. His tinkering and untold hours of elbow grease transformed ordinary and unexpected objects like milkshake mixing cups, go-cart tires, wine goblets, and air conditioner motors into tall, kaleidoscopic works of art. What Vollis called windmills, others called whirligigs. Simpson’s storied creations caught the attention of Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum, where one of his works now lives, and Southern Living named him a “Hero of the New South” in 2012. But before all that, Simpson’s work drew the attention of area townsfolk, especially at night, when drivers trained their headlights on the myriad reflectors affixed to the whirligigs. Hallucinogenic, they said. Vollis’s homemade technicolor wind farm.
 

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Whirligigs in the VSWP at night. Image by Adam Kampe

 
All of this came about because one man steadily welded, piece by piece, what would become a field of wind-loving and story-generating whirligigs. But his handiwork paid the price for living outside for roughly 30 years. Ravaged by the elements, including Hurricane Andrew, things started to break down—fans no longer spun, colors faded, parts rusted. At this point, Vollis was too old to climb the support poles to repaint or lubricate all those essential bearings. [He was 93 when we met in 2012 and died a year later]. Just as the magic was disappearing from Vollis’s field of dreams, a plan was hatched to not only save the whirligigs but also to save Wilson.
 
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Downtown Wilson. Image by Adam Kampe

 
Wilson, North Carolina, (population 49,620) once boomed with tobacco and sweet potatoes, but over time the town lost its economic foothold and some of its rural charm. Situated in the Coastal Plain region, about 45 minutes east of Raleigh, the city suffered like many other cities that were once buoyed by manufacturing and agriculture. Shuttered storefronts and empty warehouses dot the downtown. But seven years ago, Wilson resident and renowned photographer Burk Uzzle recognized the need to save the whirligigs and spurred Henry Walston to action. Walston set about to find the money and forge bonds between the public-private sectors to ensure that the park would someday become a reality. No easy feat. His work took tremendous patience and gumption to get buy-in from the Simpson family, and secure all manner of grants not only from the National Endowment for the Arts, but also the North Carolina Arts Council, the Kresge Foundation, ArtPlace America, and the Kohler Foundation. Because of all this work, Wilson is back on the map.
 
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The official sign to the new park. Image by Adam Kampe

 
Once the grand opening for the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park was announced, I jumped at the chance to see the park and reunite with some of the folks I met years ago, and brought my mom along as my date. Over authentic North Carolina barbeque at the Walstons, we chatted with the filmmaking team, Gerret Warner and Mimi Greder, who’ve been documenting this story for years, as well as Ron Harvey and Dennis Montagna, two expert conservators who consulted on the restoration. We discussed what this moment means for Wilson. I eventually shared that I could not believe my eyes. The park itself is stunning, day or night. On its northern edge sits a fantastic microbrewery. Across the street, you’ll find a modern apartment complex with retail space (in progress) on the ground floor. It made me think of something Henry Walston said when I interviewed him back in 2012: We see this as a project that, when it comes to fruition, will be the stimulus that will help downtown Wilson reinvent itself.” It’s uncanny how right he was. Of course, Wilson won’t transform overnight, but a case is being built, brick by brick, that things are changing.

It’s the kind of change people talk about when they talk about creative placemaking—when new businesses invest in and revitalize a community because of its art, its culture, and its promise. It’s partly why photographer Burk Uzzle bought a defunct car dealership and converted it into a state-of-the-art studio/loft apartment blocks from the park. After touring his studio, I stopped into 217 Brew Works for air conditioning and a cold beer. There, I chatted with other park admirers and quickly realized I’m not alone.

One of the people at the bar, Christine, made the trip all the way from Connecticut. She told me how her dad served in Saipan with Vollis Simpson. She gingerly removed a torn black-and-white photograph out of her bag. It was a picture of her mother and her father. Her father, who remained close with the Simpsons for years after the war, really wanted to see the park. But like Vollis, he passed on before that was possible. She brought the picture to hopefully show Vollis’s wife, Jean, who was there.
 

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L-R. Adam Kampe, Sam Price, Susan Kampe, Henry Walston, Heidi Boise, and Dennis Montagna.

 
In addition to old friends of the family, there’s a unique group of people who are extra smitten by the park’s presence and significance—the workers who dutifully restored the whirligigs (in some cases from scratch due to severe disrepair). Two in particular, Sam Price and Mel Bowen, are often seen at the park not only to admire what they’ve done but to share details about the laborious, years-long restoration process with passers-by. That’s the thing about this project—in the process of restoring Simpson's art, jobs were created which, in turn, restored a sense of civic pride in area residents. I interviewed Sam years ago inside the Conservation Headquarters where thousands of whirligig parts lay in wait, disassembled and rust-covered. He was thrilled to show me and my mom exactly what he did and where it now stands, perfectly mounted, shining in the sun, and most importantly, turning in the wind.
 
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Kids with pinwheels at the grand opening. Image by Drew C. Wilson | Wilson Times

“When the wind is up, Vollis is smiling.” – Carol Kyles, daughter of Jean and Vollis Simpson

When the park opened on November 2, the wind was up and the sun was out. As local leaders addressed the massive crowd, from Wilson’s mayor to the head of the North Carolina Arts Council, area students spilled out of buses to enjoy free bags of kettle corn and cake pops. A bluegrass band played on the lawn. Volunteers handed out mini-whirligigs in the form of pinwheels to anyone and everyone. As the plastic pinwheels danced in circles beneath the spinning metal whirligigs, Vollis was most certainly smiling down on the curious crowd gathered to witness his spectacular labor of love.

“Mr. Rogers used to say it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Well, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” That’s how Henry Walston began his speech at what was now officially the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. He continued, “This park was built for you and we want you to enjoy it for many years to come.”