Vollis In The NYTWednesday, April 07, 2010
In yesterday's New York Times, they have a feature about Vollis Simpson, called 'Junkyard Poet of Whirligigs and Windmills'. He's 91 years old and lives in Lucama, North Carolina. Av and I saw some of his work in Baltimore when we visited the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore:
Mr. Simpson, a graduate of the 11th grade and the United States Army Air Corps, is the creator of some of the most recognizable work in the genre of American homemade art by self-taught practitioners, now known by the dressed-up names of outsider art or visionary art.
He has lived to see what he thought of as a hobby for himself and quirky entertainment for the neighbors become part of a seriously regarded corner of the art world, one that generates master’s theses, museum shows and significant money.
His work, which graced a window at Bergdorf Goodman in Manhattan last Christmas, is on permanent display in Baltimore, Atlanta and Albuquerque. City people regularly find their way down Wiggins Mills Road to his place, and some of them give him $125 or more for a little nuts-and-bolts dog with a propeller for a tail. His biggest pieces have sold for many thousands, though he gives a lot away, and his only business manager is his wife, Jean, 82, who used to do the books for the repair shop.
The attentions of the outside world seem to befuddle him even today. When he first started making these things he calls his “windmills” 25 years ago, did he call it art?
“Didn’t call it nothing,” he said. “Just go to the junkyard and see what I could get. Went by the iron man, the boat man, the timber man. Ran by every month. If they had no use for it, I took it.”
Mr. Simpson, one of 12 children, learned to fix things before he learned to read. He joined the military, and while stationed in the Pacific during World War II made his first windmill from parts of a junked B-29 bomber, to power a giant washing machine for soldiers’ clothes.
Back home he settled into the equipment repair business, and when the oil embargo drove up fuel prices in the 1970s, he made another windmill to blow wood-heated air into his home. “My mom complained about the smoky smell so much that it didn’t last long,” Leonard Simpson said.
Some years later Vollis decorated the discarded windmill and planted it in the pasture, next to the pond. Then, starting in the mid-1980s, one thing led to another, and tractor repair was gradually supplanted by whirligig construction.
Perhaps his biggest break came in the mid-1990s, when Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, a Maryland philanthropist and consultant to nonprofits who was preparing to open the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, decided Mr. Simpson was just the man to provide its signature piece. She had visited him in Lucama and was attracted by the grand scale of his larger works, and by their complexity and precise engineering. She also liked his modesty.
In Ms. Hoffberger, who has become a major figure in the national movement to champion the art of the self-trained, he found a “rabid fan” (her words) who once brought two busloads of his relatives up from North Carolina to admire his masterpiece. She calls Mr. Simpson one of the “true visionaries,” whose wit and genius for color and balance never fails to move people.
“You put one of his freshly painted pieces, moving as he designed it, anywhere in the world, and people will stop what they’re doing and stare and smile and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Ms. Hoffberger said.
“I only wish that Alexander Calder could have known him,” she added. “He would have been smitten.”