Vollis Simpson: Making Something Out Of Nothing

Vollis Simpson is a lifelong machinist, but he didn't know he was an artist until someone came out to his workshop in rural Lucama, North Carolina, and told him so. His creative tinkering dates back to World War II, when he built a wind-powered machine that allowed fellow soldiers to dry their clothes. For decades now, Simpson has used scrap materials he has stumbled upon to create machinery, including a motorcycle, wreckers from old tanks, and countless kinetic works of art affectionately known as "whirligigs." Vollis, however, prefers to refer to these complicated, awe-inspiring creations by a simpler term: windmills.

Over time, his gigantic, whirring whirligigs have drawn more and more attention. The Wilson Downtown Development Corporation (WDDC) in nearby Wilson, North Carolina, took note and designed a plan to create and dedicate a park to celebrate Vollis and his work. In order to make this happen, the WDDC applied for and received not one but two grants from the NEA. One grant (an Art Works grant) is for the actual design of the park and the second, which this multimedia video spotlights, is an Our Town grant to support the repair and the conservation of the rusting whirligigs.


Vollis Simpson: I'm Vollis Simpson, from Lucama about three and a half miles. I was born and raised at Old Hog Place place. Still live there. It has always been five cross roads here, and I was drafted in World War II for one year and war broke out while I was in there, and I stayed there five years. I come out in the late '40s, and three of us built this shop. 1950.

I got caught with a lot of material, that I thought I'd make some windmills.

Over ten years, I was out there practically every weekend for ten years, 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.

Vollis Simpson: Well, it's got a little whizzy sound to them and you hear a little <makes blowing sound> just like an airplane breaking the sound barrier. I hang some chimes under them so they'll make a little music once in a while. It sounds like a piano player once in a while, when I had them in mint condition.

Jeff Currie: My name is Jeff Currie, and we're here in Wilson, North Carolina, corner of Barnes and Douglas Streets downtown. And the building is the old Barnes Auto Parts Warehouse, which was the distribution center for a lot of auto parts dealerships in eastern North Carolina. And it is the headquarters for the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project Repair and Conservation.

We take them down from where they're currently at on Vollis's land, and when they come in here, some of them aren't moving. Some of them, the parts are rusted up, some of them, the parts have seized up over time, and the last few years, Vollis has gotten older and hasn't been able to grease them, and some of them, he's taken pieces off of over the years. There's a piece that's in front of us right now, of a front wheel, and it has two men and a dog at the back, and the men are sawing a piece of wood….actually looks like wood, it's made out of metal, all of it's made out of metal. And he actually took the front arms off the guy, the front man, during the hurricane, because he said he was working himself to death. So when it came in to us, we evaluated the piece to see, okay, what is this made out of, what is this motion? It has different types of bearings on it. What types of bearings do we need to replace? What are parts that we don't need to replace, that are in good condition. Common sense things that will help in the maintenance in a public space. We also do things for safety. It's a difficult process sometimes to find parts or to figure out sometimes how he was putting something together, but we have mechanics in here who have experience, some of which worked at the Bridgestone-Firestone plant in town, retired from there.

Joe Justice: My name is Joe Justice. I'm retired from Firestone, and I started working on the Vollis Simpson project back in October of 2011. I do all the woodworking, and also involved with the reconstruction of some of the smaller parts. We have turned some new airplanes that Vollis had on his large whirligig. He had four airplanes, ranging from about 24 to 33 inches long. They were made out of old porch balusters, and the fuselage was wood. We had to redo those. We turned them out of Sapele, which is an African mahogany type wood. And I have disassembled the plane, I have painted the fuselage. Right now I'm just getting ready to start priming it. I've cleaned it, I'm ready to prime it.

Jeff Currie: Yeah, this ain't in the best shape, so it would be good to know. Check that out. Just check.

Sam Price: We're going to check that out.

Jeff Currie: Go work on this one.

Sam Price: My name is Sam Brass, I'm in mechanical. I have to take them apart and put them together.

We're trying a less invasive measure to get to the bearings themselves, so we can replace them, and we were trying to go through an already existing crack. Hopefully, which will be easier to put back together without looking like we've been in it.

Barbara Oakey: My name is Barbara Oakey. When we bring the pieces, we move the pieces from Vollis's farm. I look them over, I draw them, and I document about the piece. I was out of work, and a friend of mine, they had come up here, and see that they were hiring up here, so I come up here, and they called us in for our interviews, and I got the job. I wish I could work here the rest of my life, because he is just so exciting. You learn so much. You can't get justice by going out there and looking, but when you come in and you actually work on a piece, it's a different perspective from that, because you learn so much about that piece, how much time he had into it, how hard he's worked all his life, and the hard work he'd had to do, what he had to do to make this piece. Because you learn art, you learn it all, you know, and this has been very exciting for us. I even detailed the bomber that come off a carousel. I even looked down to the tricycle tires it has, and wrote down the number-- the numbers are still on the tire. You know, it's just things like that, that lets you know that this man put a lot of time and work into his art, because it's just-- I don't know, you can't explain it. I honor him, I really do.

Vollis Simpson: When I got something to do, I work all day. I get tired out, I start something else.

Adam Kampe: If there's anything else you want to add collectively as a group, now's your chance. You're happy to be here, or…

Jeff Currie: Are you happy to be here?

Group: I am.

<overlapping conversation>

Adam Kampe: Well thank you all, I really appreciate it.

Group: No, thank you.