Once home to a thriving tobacco industry, Wilson is a small city in rural North Carolina that recently found itself home to something altogether different: a collection of large kinetic sculptures inspired by windmills. Made by one of its residents, WWII veteran Vollis Simpson, these “whirligigs” have become internationally celebrated examples of vernacular art, many of which are part of collections at museums across the country, including the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. With many old moving pieces, though, the sculptures were in need of serious conservation attention. Working in a public-private partnership, the partnership of Wilson Downtown Properties, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the City of Wilson set out to conserve the whirligigs with the future vision of exhibiting them in a new public park.
Wilson is a small city of just under 50,000 people in North Carolina’s rural region, just east of Raleigh. A former tobacco town, the city was once dotted with red brick tobacco warehouses, some of which have since been adaptively reused for different purposes. Part of Wilson’s landscape includes the life of one of its residents, the late Vollis Simpson, a WWII veteran who in his retirement used his background as a machinist and rigger to build what he called “whirligigs,” kinetic windmill-like structures built with the mechanical spare parts used while running a machine shop in Lucama. Reaching up to 55 feet, the moving structures are colossal. Though he resisted the label of artist, the whirligigs are widely acknowledged as significant examples of vernacular art.
Wilson is diverse, with the most recent census showing a population about 42% Caucasian, 47% African American and 10% Hispanic or Latino. Following the federal tobacco buy-out program, many of Wilson’s international tobacco buyers, who were significant sources of economic development, stopped coming to the city. This shift left an economic vacuum that Wilson is working to fill in again. Residents face a challenging economic landscape; 19.5% of individuals live below poverty level, and the median household income is $38,384. Each year, however, the annual Whirligig Festival draws about 50,000 people to see Vollis Simpson’s creations.
Like the machines that Simpson built and repaired throughout his life, the whirligigs require similar attention to maintenance. Exhibited outside, often made with scrap metal, and always involving an array of interdependent moving parts, the artwork demands considerable upkeep. As Simpson’s health deteriorated (he passed away in 2013), the whirligigs also deteriorated, making the commitment to preservation all the more pressing. Because these artworks had become a significant part of the city’s cultural landscape and its economic vitality, Wilson needed to preserve these vulnerable artifacts. It also needed to boost economic opportunities for its underemployed populations.
Being such unique pieces of vernacular art, the city needed a tailored framework for preserving the distinctive structures. Not only did it want to determine how to preserve the whirligigs, it sought to establish standards high enough that they could serve as a model for a general conservation protocol concerning vernacular art. Further, it wanted these standards to include provisions for job training in conservation, engineering, and mechanics. Ultimately, the community also envisioned the creation of a world-class public park in its downtown area to display 31 of Simpson’s whirligigs, becoming an integral civic space. In the heart of Historic Downtown Wilson, close to the train station and Wilson’s administrative offices, the park would be accessible to residents and visitors alike (the development of the public park would become part of a future NEA grant.)
The community initiated the project as a public-private partnership between the City of Wilson, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Wilson Downtown Properties, Inc., a nonprofit organization that encourages community development in Wilson’s downtown. Because the project demanded art conservation expertise, the team assembled a broad coalition of experts who could consult on this subject, including the National Parks Service, Tuckerbrook Conservation, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To develop its workforce-training program with the local under/unemployed population, the team collaborated with St. John’s Community Development Corporation, Opportunities Industrialization Center of Wilson, and the Wilson Community College. Local businesses, including DuPont, Barnes Motor and Parts/Napa, Evans Macavish Agricraft, and Bridgestone Americas, provided in-kind donations and technical assistance with items such as advice about specific materials and safety training.
- National Parks Service: Represenatives were part of a team of experts who helped develop the protocols for repairing and conserving the whirligigs.
- Tuckerbrook Conservation: Served on the team of experts to help with the repair and conversation of the whirligigs.
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art: Representatives advised the leadership team on their future plans to develop a museum.
- Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art: Helped in the early stages of project development.
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Associate Professor Juan Logan provided conversation expertise.
- St. John’s Community Development Corporation & Opportunities Industrialization Center of Wilson: Served as partners on an 18 month workforce training project. The two organizations recruited participants, conducted soft skills training, and provided case management and job referrals.
- Wilson Community College: Provided initial training for the conservation team and additional training for participants in welding, safety, and workforce readiness for the 18-month workforce training program.
- ArtPlace America
- Kresge Foundation
- The Educational Foundation of America
- North Carolina Arts Council
- Wilson County Tourism
- City of Wilson
The NEA grant came as part of a multiple year effort to preserve the structures and make them accessible to a larger public audience. As part of these larger efforts, the grant helped to support the restoration of the structures. Conservators started by transporting the 31 whirligigs to a single site so that they could work on them collectively. They conferred closely with conservation experts from across the U.S., ensuring a high standard of craft. “The whirligigs were in much worse condition than originally estimated, requiring more time and money to repair and conserve,” observed Kimberly Van Dyk, Wilson’s downtown manager and the project director. As a result of this, the city had to extend its grant period to carry out the needed work. Many of the parts were no longer available for purchase, so conservators had to lease a milling machine and a metal lathe so that it could alter or fabricate needed parts that weren’t available on the market.
To date, the project has been able to accomplish the meticulous conservation of 21 whirligigs. As part of this process, it was able to establish standards and protocols for mechanical and surface treatments. The conservators were also able to hire and train local residents in preservation and mechanical craftsmanship. In so doing, it created 17 temporary and 2 longer term jobs for local, underemployed youth. These youth were trained in welding, metal fabrication, sanding, grinding, painting, documentation, photography, and/or record-keeping. By focusing this attention on the city’s significant cultural holdings, the process added an important civic emblem shared by all residents regardless of cultural or socioeconomic background.
The completed restoration of the iconic structures allowed for the project to continue with further plans for developing a public park where they could be displayed. Partners had projected an eventual $40 million dollar increase in private investment in the surrounding area over the ten years following the park’s opening. It was not anticipated that over $20 million in private investment would already be in progress with the park still under development and pending construction. Now some properties in Historic Downtown Wilson that have been vacant for decades are being transformed into mixed-use developments filled with residential units and new small businesses. The first mixed use development, Nash Street Lofts, is a good example. The nearly century old building on Wilson’s main thoroughfare had been vacant for over 20 years. In January 2014, its restoration was completed and by the spring, 10 of the 13 units were rented and occupied with residents, bringing new energy to downtown.