SmART Initiative: Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project
Photo courtesy of Keith Barnes.
Vollis Simpson never calls himself an artist, but the thousands of people who visit his astounding whirligig field in Lucama certainly do. Towering fifty feet or more above ground, and extending nearly as far outwards into space, the more than thirty monumental whirligigs erected on his property demonstrate the power of individual vision coupled with a traditional art form. These compelling assemblages have found their way into international art collections and even into a popular window installation at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store, demonstrating their wide-ranging appeal to younger generations of artists and engineers.
Having contracted to purchase 29 of Vollis Simpson’s monumental whirligig sculptures, the City of Wilson is working to conserve and relocate these internationally known but poorly maintained artworks to an expressly designed downtown Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park.
The park site, currently being designed by landscape design firm Lappas & Havener, will anchor an arts district, offering a model for arts driven economic development, cultural tourism, arts and science education and creative placemaking. Slated to open in early 2013, the park has the potential to catalyze development not just in Wilson County but throughout eastern North Carolina, becoming an international tourist destination.
Since the inauguration of the Whirligig Park in 2009, the N.C. Arts Council has enjoyed a partnership with the City of Wilson and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park project, providing technical assistance and awarding Creative Economies grants to fund preliminary park design, conservation studies, project management fees, an object inventory and ongoing documentation by a folklorist and filmmakers.
This grassroots effort to preserve the artwork of one of North Carolina’s beloved artists has made impressive and brisk progress, garnering considerable local support and participation from local elected officials, the Wilson Community College, Barton College, the Bridgestone Corporation and national technical support from the U.S. Park Service and a distinguished National Advisory Board.
In 2011, the project received $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), one of its largest Our Town grants for creative placemaking. Additional funders include the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, and ArtPlace, a new placemaking collaboration among top national foundations, the NEA and other federal agencies that awarded the project $500,000 in its inaugural grant cycle.
The emphasis on workforce development for specially trained local engineers, mechanics and conservators hired to work in the repair and conservation headquarters render this important arts-oriented downtown revitalization effort particularly compelling.