Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Inside the Outsider Art of Vollis Simpson
Vollis Simpson’s hands are like Paul Bunyan’s. Huge. Callused. Rough from a lifetime of farm work and welding. He approached us from across the field wearing scruffy overalls and a tattered straw hat. I somehow knew he was the artist although his appearance did not jibe with the image of someone who had recently been visited by the curator from the Smithsonian.
My friend Rose and I had made the drive to rural North Carolina the previous day. A book had inspired us to seek out outsider artists. The South is particularly rich with these unschooled artists who are often driven by obsessive visions or religious passion. The route had been full of wrong turns and misdirection. We’d asked several of locals where the field of giant whirligigs was but until we stopped at the Ryan’s Steakhouse, no one seemed to have heard of it. “You mean those fancy telephone pole things that twirl around?” the waitress asked, “I know where that is.,” she’d told us. We’d driven back out into the darkness past moonlit fields of knee-high hay, sleeping cows and shadowy farm houses. “We better come back in the morning. I think we’re lost again.” I suggested. But as we went around one more curve on the asphalt road, our car’s headlights illuminated a sight that caused us to slam on the breaks. Stretching for acres were towering sculptures covered chock-a-block with reflectors, shooting sparkles of colors in every direction. As the wind blew, gears spun the giant blades, shooting kaleidoscopes of colored lights to the horizons in both directions. Party favors from Alice in Wonderland. A couple of cars went by without stopping, somehow jaded to the sight. We were awestruck and stayed until midnight.
The next morning we were eager to return to in the daylight. As we ate at the B&B in Wilson, we showed the other guests and the innkeeper photos in a book we were using as our guide (Self Made Worlds by Mark Sloan). “Look at these!” Rose exclaimed. “And it goes on for 10 acres! If ya’ll want to come with us, you can follow us.” “Whirly whats?” the woman from Charlotte asked. “They look very….interesting but we’re going antiquing” The innkeeper had never been there and it was only 5 miles away.
In the daylight it was even more impressive. Craning our necks back, we watched the kinetic display. Each telephone pole size whirligig was a scene that turned as the wind blew. Ferris wheels spun, ducks and chickens flew past smiling cats, trains traveled down tracks, men sawed wood, suns and moons revolved. The rudimentary shapes of the farm tools, gears and tractor parts that the sculptures were made from were vaguely identifiable.
As Vollis Simpson, the artist, approached us from the shed a field away, I felt like I was about to meet a legend. A tall man, he walked straight and upright despite his apparent age. His face told of years in the sun on a tractor. “How did you get started with this?” I asked him. He explained that after sixty years of working his farm, he retired to find his land littered with spare parts, cast-offs and garbage. Without a clear artistic plan or training, he had started welding them together and had become an accidental artist. He acted like he had all the time in the world to stroll around pointing out his favorites: Mules pulling a wagon and a huge rock and roll band modeled after his son’s that required strong gusts of wind to turn it. There were no other visitors. Eventually he led us to a large barn and we walked in and gasped to see thousands of smaller sculptures in heaps and piles and smaller whirligigs on shelves and tables in various states of completion. The enormity of his vision and the boundless energy and drive he had for his artform astounded us. There was also an edge of madness.
If you go: Wiggins Mill Road, between Wilson & Lucama, North Carolina
For more information on Vollis Simpson and other outsider artists, see Self Made Worlds, by Mark Sloan and Roger Manley or