Vollis Simpson of Lucama, NC (outside of Wilson, NC) was a self-taught artist and tinkerer extraordinaire. Late in his career people began to realize that he was much more: a visionary and brilliant practitioner of vernacular art — though he just called his work whirligigs.
His death in 2013 was honored by the NYT (“Visionary Artist of the Junkyard”) and BlouinArtInfo which said his art “makes use of discarded industrial machinery, reflective signage, found objects, movable pinwheels, bent scrap metal, and pretty much everything — including the kitchen sink.” I like that.
One of the first projects I worked on as Director of Creative Economies at the NC Arts Council was with the Whirligig Park Foundation in Wilson. Working with the NC Arts Council’s SmART Initiative, they continue to build the Park and have made great progress as you can see below.
I was scheduled to meet Vollis early on in my time at the Arts Council but a meeting ran late and we didn’t have a chance to drive out to Lucama from Wilson. He died a couple of weeks later at the age of 94.
The SmART Initiative is designed to use arts, culture, creativity, and shared history to build stronger communities and economies. I’ve spent much time thinking about how to document these impacts and it’s a messy business.
But if we look at our downtowns, from the largest metro areas to struggling small towns, we see vibrancy when the community makes efforts to create or re-invent central areas in ways that reflect shared heritage without whitewashing or selling a false narrative. We have much to proud of and much to atone for and both need to be part of the discussion. So in Wilson there is the adoption of the white tinkerer Vollis Simpson, the amazing African-American Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House (now a museum), and the fantastic heritage of African-American blues and jazz in the region.
People especially like the economic numbers so here’s a chart that reflects downtown investment in the years after the Whirligig Park foundation and park were announced:
If you are in eastern NC you really need to stop by and see how arts, culture, and creativity are changing the character and health of Wilson and its residents and businesses.