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Town Turns One Man's Scrap Into Community Treasure

One of the handmade whirligigs at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park
Courtesy of Henry Walston
Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum
One of the handmade whirligigs at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park

When Vollis Simpson began constructing his mammoth whirligigs out of spare machine parts, old paint and highway signs, he did not set out to create an artistic legacy. 

But the 30 giant kinetic sculptures he created on his Wilson, North Carolina property brought in tourists and notoriety. Eventually they began to rust and deteriorate, and both Simpson and the community realized the whirligigs needed saving. Over the course of more than seven years, community members raised money, developed a plan and embarked in a fastidious conservation campaign to restore and reestablish the whirligigs in the newly opened Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.

Host Frank Stasio talks to Henry Walston, chairman of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum, and artist and conservatorJuan Logan, about the park and how it is contributing to a much larger reimagining of Wilson.


Henry on Vollis Simpson's foray into whirligigs:
He began making the whirligigs when he was 65 years old, when he retired. In his earlier life, he had been a welder, he had worked on farm machinery, he was a house mover, he had a heavy-duty wrecker service. He actually bought old army surplus vehicles and turned them into wreckers. He was a guy who could do anything with his hands and he loved to improvise … I think when Vollis retired at age 65 he was not an individual that liked to sit around and watch TV, he wanted to be doing something. He said he wanted to have something for his hands to do. And he had accumulated all this "stuff," as he called it, in his shop. And he just started putting them together. He had no diagram drawn out, he just started building them. And then he'd keep adding stuff on.


Juan on learning from Vollis Simpson as an artist:
He was a self-educated artist. Certainly that whole notion of marginalizing a person as a folk artist as opposed to just simply an American artist, American sculptor [applies to Vollis.] He was an American sculptor. And he was damn good at it.
Rarely do we have the opportunity to make such large works, or to play that way in terms of making. So it's great to have that opportunity. And also to really understand how he made his things and the hows and the whys of individual pieces and that sort of thing. So it was just a wonderful learning opportunity all around.


Henry on how the Vollis Simpson park is transforming the town:
When we embraced this project we had creative placemaking in mind. Creative placemaking being when you take an art/cultural project and you use it as a vehicle to stimulate economic development in the area the project is located. This project has … already stimulated over $25 million worth of private/public partnership, economic development in historic downtown Wilson, much of it right across the street from the park. And we know there's going to be a whole lot more that will begin very shortly.
I think I've see more positive energy in Wilson in the last week than I've seen in my lifetime. People have really embraced this project ... I think we're right on the verge of seeing a great artistic community develop in historic downtown Wilson.

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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