Photo by Jefferson Currie

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Vollis Simpson

Vollis Simpson (January 17, 1919–May 31, 2013) was an uncommon sculptor who created massive windmills and whirligigs that he erected on family land near the rural community of Lucama, Wilson County, North Carolina. Growing up he worked on the family farm and helped his father in a structural moving business until he enlisted in the military following high school. In the Army Air Corps when World War II began, he was stationed on the island of Saipan in the South Pacific where he used his skills in mechanics and engineering to support the war effort. While on Saipan, Simpson built a windmill from scrap parts in order to power a washing machine for soldiers’ clothes. Following the war, Simpson returned to Wilson County where he married and started a family. He farmed for a few years before he opened a repair shop in 1951, out of which he continued moving buildings, doing rigging work, building and operating tow trucks and cranes, farming, and doing some salvage work. During the energy crisis Simpson built a large windmill to force wood-heated air through the ductwork of his home, but by the late 1970s he had begun constructing large artistic and kinetic windmills and whirligigs, erecting them on land around his repair shop and a nearby pond. He would say that he had a bunch of material and instead of selling it for scrap he “put it up in the field.” Created from structural steel and various metal, wood, and fiberglass parts, many of Vollis Simpson’s sculptures were figurative and based in his life, family, and community, but much of his work was also fantastical and abstract. Over a ten year span he created around twenty sculptures, windmills, and whirligigs, garnering him attention from museums, art curators, and collectors both locally and nationally. Soon he was making commissioned pieces for the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, the Folk Art Park at the 1994 Atlanta Olympics, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, while also selling smaller works to folks who came by his repair shop to sit and talk for a while. For more than thirty years, Simpson repurposed scrapped materials into sculptures, transforming a rural five-points intersection into an art environment that people often called “Acid Park” or “The Lights.” Vollis Simpson challenged simple categorization as craftsman, mechanic, engineer, artist; he combined skill with creative ability to turn the discarded into enormous playful kinetic sculptures.