When you visit the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park, bring a neck pillow. You’ll probably have the same reaction everyone does: to stare upward, open-mouthed, in amazement.
Watching these kinetic-sculpture creations whirl overhead once required finding Simpson’s farm out in the country, on Wiggins Mill Road near Lucama. But more than 30 of the late folk artist’s works have been gathered, restored and put on display around the perimeter of this 2-acre park in downtown Wilson. Years in the works, it has its grand opening Thursday, right before the annual North Carolina Whirligig Festival that celebrates Simpson and his creations.
“These are the big iconic ones people remember,” said park executive director Jeff Bell, who has been staring up at these same whirligigs since he was growing up in Goldsboro. “My mom’s a science teacher, so anything with wind or science, we had to do. So we’d go out to Vollis’ farm, leave the headlights on and look while listening to the radio.”
The park formalizes what has been Wilson County’s biggest unofficial tourist attraction for years. It’s also a key piece of redevelopment efforts in the town of about 50,000 people 50 miles east of Raleigh – the onetime “World’s Greatest Tobacco Market” looking to modernize after that industry’s decline.
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The $10 million project’s roots go back nearly a decade, to when Wilson began contemplating how to attract people and business to its downtown.
“One idea was a central park, a sort of community living room, filled with Vollis Simpson whirligigs,” said Kimberly Van Dyk, Wilson’s planning and community revitalization director. “That stood out as one with high potential to be a catalyst. Vollis lived his whole life in Wilson County and made one-of-a-kind artwork that was already drawing people in droves. So we started sussing it out.”
Building ‘Acid Park’
Simpson, born in 1919, grew up as one of 12 kids in a farming family. One of the few times he left North Carolina was to serve in the Army Air Corps in World War II.
Simpson came back after the war and ran a machinery repair shop, also moving houses on the side. In that capacity, he acquired a sizable collection of discarded industrial materials.
After retiring in the mid-1980s, Simpson began turning these cast-off parts into big, whimsical display pieces with moving parts. They’re engineering marvels that look like carnival rides, some towering more than 50 feet high. And Simpson did all the work on the vast majority of them alone, without assistance.
Word got out about what locals dubbed “Acid Park,” and it became a must-see pilgrimage stop for fans of outsider art. Simpson’s renown grew, as did the value of his work. The North Carolina Museum of Art, the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan and Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum are among the institutions with Simpson whirligigs on permanent display. Three are at Cary’s Jack Smith Park while a smaller one twirls in downtown Raleigh next to the Skyhouse apartment building.
The New York Times dubbed Simpson “visionary artist of the junkyard.” But Simpson himself was unimpressed, saying only, “I have a lot of junk and I have to do somethin’ with it.”
An economic boost
Wilson began work on its whirligig park in 2010, and the city’s efforts were well-timed. Simpson’s whirligigs had been falling into disrepair as he reached an age where he could no longer maintain them. The park’s nonprofit foundation bought the whirligigs, and teams began moving them into a workshop a few at a time, to rebuild and restore them.
Before Simpson died in 2013 at the age of 94, he helped advise the teams as they carefully restored the structures piece by piece.
Their new park setting features a covered stage and large lawn area for live performances, music and more. There’s also a shelter area for a farmers market and other events.
Next spring, a visitors center and museum will open in a former tobacco warehouse across the street. The state said the project has helped create $25 million in private investment in downtown. A brewpub and mixed-use loft projects already have sprung up in the vicinity, with more development on the way – just as the city hoped.
“There were three things to accomplish, starting with saving, conserving and displaying the art,” said Van Dyk. “Since it’s such an authentic, unique thing to Wilson, we hoped it would draw investor interest in downtown real estate. And the third thing was to create a community gathering space. It’s for people from elsewhere to visit and enjoy, but also an amenity for the local community.”
Added Bell, “I’m selfish, I just like art. But it’s already created a big economic boost. Part of the reason to do this was to rejuvenate downtown Wilson. So if it makes money, that’s good, too.”
Where: Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is at 301 Goldsboro St. South in Wilson.
What: The park has its official grand opening Nov. 2, 4-7 p.m., with ribbon-cutting and live music. The North Carolina Whirligig Festival is 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 4 and noon-5 p.m. Nov. 5 in and around the park in downtown Wilson. All events are free.