Monday, July 11, 2011

The Windmill World of Vollis Simpson

{Chewing the Fat with a Folk Art Legend}





When P. and I were down in North Carolina recently we made a pilgrimage with our friends deep into the eastern byways in search of folk art legend Vollis Simpson, who has been welding and building whirligigs and windmills for the better part of his 93 years. The trip was a wild lark; we didn't expect to find his compound let alone meet the man behind the magic. So we were giddy when we spotted a thirty-foot sky blue windmill contraption poking into the horizon and floored to find Vollis Simpson himself tinkering away under the sagging overhang of his dilapidated workshop just around the corner. Amid a sprawling smorgasbord of steel pipes, sheet metal, bicycle parts and the bones of rusted farm equipment, Mr. Simpson welcomed us to sit with him in the shade and take a load off. Charming chaps that they are, P. and Billy had Vollis in stitches and telling his story in no time.





One of twelve children, Vollis grew up learning how to use winches and drive mule trains from his father, who had a house-moving business. He built his first windmill to power a washing machine when was stationed in Saipan during WWII. After the war he started his own house-moving company, replacing the mules with an old army truck, and built the occasional windmill to power various gadgets on the family farm. Later he opened a farm equipment repair shop and used old tractor parts and his well-honed house-moving skills to build and install larger, more whimsical windmills, many of which look like elaborate junkyard transmitters to another world. He's been building them ever since. Haven't missed ten days of work in ten years, he beamed.





We must have stayed close to two hours; the boys sat in the shade and chewed the fat with Vollis while Ash and I explored the staggering windmills scattered around his rambling farm (watch out fer the dogs down the road, them's an unfriendly lot) and steered clear of Vollis' booby-traps (I caughta sumbitch's shoe just three days ago; them sneaky bastards gunna come'n steal equipmunt from an ole feller like me, Ima beat the fool outta'm). Vollis is sharp as a tack and full of zingers; when Billy asked what the government gave him in return for his service in WWII, Vollis didn't skip a beat: Wha'd they give me? They gave me hell, is what! 





After the PBS documentary and New York Times article about him,Vollis has emerged as somewhat of a folk art celebrity, which bemuses him to no end. (I don't git what all the fuss is about, he told us). Finally, after we'd stayed our welcome and Vollis had to get back to work painting a thirty foot pole before his wife finished her card game, we each shook his hand and said goodbye. I enjoyed ya'll, he said as he slopped on the paint. We left reluctantly, all of us in smiling silence as we drove out of the cool pine shadows of Simpson's Crossroads. When we finally turned on the radio somewhere in the sunny patchwork of east Carolina cotton fields and suburban sprawl, the world of Vollis Simpson already seemed a world away.

For more interviews, observations and photo essays on folk art and outsider art on bigBANG: click here for a post on Leonard Knight's magnificent Salvation Mountain in the California desert; here for Charlie Russell's spectacular East Jesus, an off-the-grid art installation and one-man despotism in Slab City, California (sad side note: beloved Charlie died this spring); here for Noah Purifoy's assemblage masterpiece in my old stomping grounds in Joshua Tree, California; here for Nek Chand's Fantasy Rock Garden, the awe-inspiring junkyard kingdom in Chandigarh, Punjab, India. 

20 comments:

  1. gosh how wonderful and raw, when someone has a passion like this i feel as if i can live in their pocket. your pics are fantastic one really gets the feeling of what his days are like.

    i love this series and how how you capture is without the gloss and spotlights!

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  2. I grew up in a nearby town and the teens in the area always called his house/yard Acid Park. There's a completely untrue urban legend that his daughter was killed on the night of her prom after driving her VW bug into a tree on his property. Simpson was so distraught that he began building those whirligigs. Teens sneak onto his property at night & the moving whirligigs are supposedly like being on an acid trip. Not sure if teens still believe the urban legend or not (especially since he's gained more recognition in the last few years).
    So glad you enjoyed your time in NC! I love my home state, so it's always nice to hear that visitors enjoy it as well.

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  3. gorgeous contraptions and genius fellow behind them. you have long ago persuaded us that 1) either you lead a charmed life or 2) you have a great nose for adventure - and treasures!

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  4. Nadia- that means the world coming from you. thank you!

    Caro- you would have LOVED this guy.

    Takingback- so excited to hear the back-story! I can imagine that taking in that scene on a windy night is pretty wild, and I wonder if one of those teenagers is missing a shoe. Crazy that the legend is so detailed, too (like, a VW bug?! so specific!). North Carolina is one of the most beautiful states in my book, and it's a treat every time we visit.

    Mlle- not charmed, but perhaps a nose for adventure when P. is along for the ride;) xo.

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  5. Fascinating! I love finding out about these largely unrecognized artists who are driven by pure passion and imagination. Vollis has made a great life for himself, thanks for sharing

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  6. What luck, amazing that you found him and had the chance to sit and talk with this man! His creations are just as you described them. Would be incredible to see them in real life! Really enjoyed reading your description of the meeting and the place (especially liked the close up photos of his hands and boots) captures a lot. Think you do have a nose for adventure and a skill for storytelling yourself!

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  7. oh wow... he is amazing! Right away Mr. Leonard Knight came to mind when I read this!! Love these old folk artists!

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  8. wonderful post and amazing story. especially love the urban legend Takingback told. so mystical :) acid house. wow. :)
    great shots as usual!

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  9. so cool! this guy is a national treasure!

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  10. Wonderful stuff- thank you for this- your writing makes it all so alive!X

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  11. vollis simpson is a dying american breed, a true artist living an authentic, simple life. thanks for showcasing him and his incredible art.

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  12. oh how i love this man!
    i hope i can grow up to be half as cool as he is.

    what a treat that you got to sit and shoot the breeze with him! a memory that will last a life-time!

    thanks for sharing!

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  13. what a treat! thanks for the intro...so so fantastic.

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  14. Mesmerized by whirling, twirling, wind things, add turquoise! Wow, so very wonderful. A treasure trove of Americana. What fun.

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  15. wow. amazing! must have been such a neat exploration. your photos are wonderful!

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  16. thanks for all the wonderful comments- so delighted so many of you find vollis simpson (and leonard knight!) so inspiring!

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  17. I enjoyed viewing the artwork of this NC folk artist! Thanks...My Best, joni

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  18. he is just the cutest thing ever - i like his hook nose.

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