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Art in motion: Wilson prepares to open whirligig park

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Johnnie Hamilton of Sims, a volunteer at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park project, checks the movement of one of the contraptions placed in the park — Reflector Box — as it was put together in Wilson.


By Beth Velliquette
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, October 29, 2017

For those that have never seen one of Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs, the new whirligig park in Wilson will be a marvel to behold.

For those who grew up visiting them in the field near Simpson’s home, the new Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum park in downtown Wilson should flood their hearts and minds with warm memories.

On Thursday, after seven years of raising money, cleaning, repairing and reviving the huge crazy and colorful whirligigs that Simpson built and erecting them at the new site, the park will finally open to the public with a ceremony starting at 4 p.m.

The park is two acres and designed by Surface678, the landscape design firm that has designed the landscape of North Carolina’s favorite places including the North Carolina Museum of Art. It will feature 30 of Simpson’s whirligigs, including one that is 32 feet long and weighs 13,500 pounds. It will also include an amphitheater and will feature regular educational and community events, as well as hosting the farmer’s market.

Whirligigs are more than just pieces of art. They are also engineering masterpieces. The balance, the movement, the gears, the physics of each huge structure must be just right for them to work, said Jeff Bell, executive director of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum

Simpson owned a machinery repair shop and he also moved houses to make a living, and when he retired, he began to take some of the old metal parts he had collected to create whirligigs. Soon he was going out and collecting other scrap materials, like old road signs, HVAC fans, pipes, wood, beams and mirrors and piecing them together to buildi shining and shimmering moving structures.

Word of the whirligigs he planted in the field near his home spread, and soon he was being featured in national magazines and newspapers, and people from around the nation and world were stopping by to see his work. When he died at the age of 94 in 2013, The New York Times featured his obituary.

Bell has been a long-time fan and admirer of Simpson’s whirligigs. 

“My mom was the first person to drive me out there,” he said.

Back in the day, Simpson set up all the whirligigs on his own property, and people loved to go see them during the day and at night.

“When I was younger, we would drive out there and put on our headlights,” Bell said.

The headlights made all the reflective surfaces sparkle and shine in the night as the wind blew through them, moving them in circular motions.

The whirligigs that will be in the new park also will sparkle and shine at night, Bell said.

They are covered with thousands of pieces of reflective material that were cut up from road signs and other items Simpson would have used, Bell said.

Bell has his favorite. It’s called the Windmill.

“It’s like a bit different and the coloring is a little different,” he said. “I just really love that one.”

On Thursday at 4 p.m., there will be the official ribbon-cutting at the park, followed by children’s activities at 4:30 p.m. At 6 p.m. music will start with the performance of Fireside Collective, and at 7 p.m., the park lights will be turned on, and people will be able to enjoy the nighttime scene of thousands of sparkling surfaces light up the night sky.

For those who can’t make it to the grand opening, there’s still a chance to enjoy the fun because Wilson’s Annual Whirligig Festival starts just two days later, on Saturday morning. 

In addition to opportunity to check out the new park, there will be music, art and food, plus an opportunity see and try free extreme challenge activities, like the Big Baller, in which people can try to run across a series of red balls like the contestants did on the WipeOut TV show. Instead of falling into water, however, if someone makes a misstep, he or she will just fall into a big bounce house.

The festival begins at 10 a.m. and goes to 5 p.m. on Nov. 4 and starts at noon and runs until 5 p.m. on Nov. 5. The family-friendly festival draws more than 30,000 attendees yearly who enjoy arts and crafts, live entertainment, food and beverages, and kid-friendly attractions. Festival admission is free.

The Whirligig Park is located at the corner of Goldsboro South and South Streets in downtown Wilson. 

Contact Beth Velliquette at bvelliquette@reflector.com or at 252-329-9566.