Vollis Simpson and the New York Times

Junkyard Poet of Whirligigs and Windmills


Published: April 5, 2010

New York Times

LUCAMA, N.C. — Just when you think you’ve traveled too far down Wiggins Mill Road, and you start to look for a spot to turn around, the rusting masterworks of Vollis Simpson loom into view.

Thirty feet in the air, held aloft by sturdy steel pillars, are some of Mr. Simpson’s pieces: a team of horses pulling a wagon, a metal man strumming a guitar and an airplane cum rocket ship that might have escaped from an old comic book. They are painted in a dozen colors and festooned with propellers that spin in the breeze. With every gust they creak and whir like some phantasmagoric junkyard band.

And down below, barely distinguishable in the shade of a barnlike building with “Simpson Repair Shop” painted on the front, is a gaunt man with big, gnarled hands bent over some scrap metal. It’s Mr. Simpson himself, a retired farm-equipment repairman who turned 91 in January, and who has hammered from discarded steel and aluminum a long second career as an artist.

Mr. Simpson, a graduate of the 11th grade and the United States Army Air Corps, is the creator of some of the most recognizable work in the genre of American homemade art by self-taught practitioners, now known by the dressed-up names of outsider art or visionary art.

He has lived to see what he thought of as a hobby for himself and quirky entertainment for the neighbors become part of a seriously regarded corner of the art world, one that generates master’s theses, museum shows and significant money.

His work, which graced a window at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan last Christmas, is on permanent display in Baltimore, Atlanta and Albuquerque. City people regularly find their way down Wiggins Mills Road to his place, and some of them give him $125 or more for a little nuts-and-bolts dog with a propeller for a tail. His biggest pieces have sold for many thousands, though he gives a lot away, and his only business manager is his wife, Jean, 82, who used to do the books for the repair shop.

The attentions of the outside world seem to befuddle him even today. When he first started making these things he calls his “windmills” 25 years ago, did he call it art?

“Didn’t call it nothing,” he said. “Just go to the junkyard and see what I could get. Went by the iron man, the boat man, the timber man. Ran by every month. If they had no use for it, I took it.”

The inspiration was in his gleanings, he said. “I’d look at a piece of metal, think of something and jump right on it.”

His cluttered yard is a recycling center on steroids. Junked air conditioners are great for fan blades. The police auction in nearby Wilson, N.C., supplies “all the bikes you want.” With an acetylene cutting torch, he can find the man or mule, hat or cat, hidden in any castoff sheet of steel.

“If he goes to the junkyard and finds 25 fans, he comes home and makes 25 whirligigs,” said Leonard Simpson, a 54-year-old television producer in Greensboro, N.C., who is one of Vollis Simpson’s three children.

To visit the elder Mr. Simpson on his home turf, among back roads where the abandoned tobacco barns are held up by vines, and billboards exhort drivers to repent, is to understand how naturally his art grew out of his old business.

Mr. Simpson, one of 12 children, learned to fix things before he learned to read. He joined the military, and while stationed in the Pacific during World War II made his first windmill from parts of a junked B-29 bomber, to power a giant washing machine for soldiers’ clothes.

Back home he settled into the equipment repair business, and when the oil embargo drove up fuel prices in the 1970s, he made another windmill to blow wood-heated air into his home. “My mom complained about the smoky smell so much that it didn’t last long,” Leonard Simpson said.

Some years later Vollis decorated the discarded windmill and planted it in the pasture, next to the pond. Then, starting in the mid-1980s, one thing led to another, and tractor repair was gradually supplanted by whirligig construction.

“He just did it for enjoyment,” Leonard said. “People would come from Wilson and stop and point. He came to enjoy the social aspect of it, and people started coming from further and further away. Next thing you knew, people were coming from Atlanta and Richmond.”

Perhaps his biggest break came in the mid-1990s, when Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, a Maryland philanthropist and consultant to nonprofits who was preparing to open the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, decided Mr. Simpson was just the man to provide its signature piece. She had visited him in Lucama and was attracted by the grand scale of his larger works, and by their complexity and precise engineering. She also liked his modesty.

“He’s delighted with attention, but he doesn’t need it,” she said. “My favorite artists don’t watch themselves being artists.”

She brought him up to look over the museum site at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and he went to work, eventually coming up with a 55-foot high, 45-foot wide, three-ton whirligig of whirligigs that now towers outside the museum. Built atop a sign pole salvaged from a gas station, topped by a bicycle rider, cats and angels, and incorporating oil filters, milkshake canisters and waffle-iron parts, it prompts incredulous grins from passing tourists and draws locals to watch its wild spinning during thunderstorms.

He painted it mostly red, white and blue and called it “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Unlike the pieces in his pasture it gets regular touch-ups that keep it bright.

In Ms. Hoffberger, who has become a major figure in the national movement to champion the art of the self-trained, he found a “rabid fan” (her words) who once brought two busloads of his relatives up from North Carolina to admire his masterpiece. She calls Mr. Simpson one of the “true visionaries,” whose wit and genius for color and balance never fails to move people.

“You put one of his freshly painted pieces, moving as he designed it, anywhere in the world, and people will stop what they’re doing and stare and smile and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Ms. Hoffberger said.

“I only wish that Alexander Calder could have known him,” she added. “He would have been smitten.”

The work has taken its physical toll on Mr. Simpson, who spent two days in a hospital burn unit a few years ago after a spark from a cutting torch set his shirt on fire. His knees are so painful that “I walk like a drunk,” he said.

He credits the whirligigs with carrying him long past the 70 years or so that his father and brothers lived. But even as he puts in 10 hours in his workshop on some long, warm days, he wonders about the future of the amusement park his pasture has become.

“I guess it’ll just rust and fall down when I’m gone,” he said.

Meanwhile, though, there’s work to do: the steel man smoking a steel pipe, the horse he’s got to cut out, the bicycle wheel he mounted a month ago on a frame and forgot.

“I got to get to the supply shop and get some cogs and chains,” he said, mostly to himself.