Story by Kyesha Jennings
In late June, PBS North Carolina premiered Changes in the Wind, a documentary funded by the North Carolina Arts Council about the remarkable life of Vollis Simpson, one of North Carolina’s most famous self-taught artists. The Arts Council’s interest in preserving Simpson’s work began with a conversation that the Arts Council’s former executive director, Wayne Martin, had with the artist in 2007. At the time, Martin was working with rural communities to use rich local traditions such as music and craft as tools for sustainable economic development—especially tourism.
The whirligigs, which Simpson had been constructing, painting, and installing for many years on his farm, 11 miles from downtown Wilson, had become part of Wilson’s cultural identity. Many viewed the wind-powered sculptures made from recycled industrial materials as an opportunity for tourism development. Preserving Simpson’s work was also seen as an important tribute to his engineering feats and artistry. “Vollis’s whirligigs convey his immense creativity and are testaments to his skills as an engineer. They are also expressions of the grassroots culture of eastern North Carolina. The Arts Council wanted to help restore the whirligigs so that our residents and visitors alike became aware of Vollis and the regional heritage that shaped his artistry,” said Wayne Martin.
In 2010, the city of Wilson, in partnership with Wilson Downtown Development, and the North Carolina Arts Council, embarked on a creative placemaking project that would eventually bring to life a new destination park in historic downtown Wilson filled with Simpson’s kinetic, colorful whirligigs. To date, the Arts Council has invested over $100,000 in grant funding to help implement the vision of the Wilson community. The one-of-a-kind art park, named in honor of Simpson, features 30 large-scale whirligigs and attracts some 40,000 visitors from around the world annually. According to an economic impact report conducted by Economic Leadership, LLC, “These visitors along with the operational and property tax benefits contribute $2.5 million in sales to Wilson County annually. The park is responsible for adding over $1.1 million in income earnings to Wilson County as well as 35 full-time jobs.”
“The city of Wilson was committed to helping preserve the whirligigs. The story of Vollis and how he came to make the whirligigs is also the story of Wilson,” said Nancy Trovillion, former deputy director of the North Carolina Arts Council.
The former farm machinery repairman’s work is on permanent display in museums in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, Raleigh, and Sheboygan and is represented in private folk-art collections throughout the United States and abroad. Simpson made his whirligigs until six months before he died, in 2013—the same year the General Assembly adopted his work as the official Folk Art of North Carolina. He was 94.
Directed by Gerret Warner, Changes in the Wind shows how Simpson's artistic and mechanical creations became central to the effort to revive Wilson, which, like many other small towns in North Carolina and elsewhere, had been in decline. The film drew the “Best Documentary” award at the 2022 Southern Shorts Awards and the “Best Director Short Doc” award at the Berlin Indie Film Festival. The Arts Council spoke with Warner recently about his experiences in Wilson.
Can you take us back to when you first began working on the documentary. What was the initial vision?
In 2010, I was looking for a documentary project and around that same time there was a North Carolina Arts Council grant to document Vollis Simpson, who was 91 years old, before he was gone. The initial grant was fairly simple: document this remarkable artist in his hometown. Who knows where it goes from here. Just, you know, shoot. And for documentaries, that's a hard challenge. But my wife and I appreciated the opportunity. And we loved Mr. Simpson. We were very interested in folk art. And so we just shot.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while filming?
If you know anything about photography, there's nothing worse than shooting an object of great delicacy and infinite smallness and parts against the sky. I thought long and hard about how we would get the necessary shots. I mean, there were hardly any drones available at our kind of budget in 2010, and 2011. And, really, it takes a large budget to do good drone work. Finally, the great solution was simply to get us a bucket truck. So, the shots that we were able to get up close at eye level, 50 feet in the air, were taken from a bucket truck that was donated by the town. That was the biggest hurdle. Technically, the other one was simply trying to gain Vollis’s confidence. That didn't take very long; Mimi Gredy, my wife and business partner, did all of the interviews, and they went great. I think the truth is, he liked visitors. He worked alone in his shop, but people stopped by all the time. He grew to know us and became pretty open about how he felt about things and shared the what and why he did what he did.
What is your favorite memory of Vollis Simpson while filming?
The thing that I most appreciated was his honesty. Vollis would say, “Well, people laugh at me, but I didn't give a damn.” People would drive by and scratch their heads and go, what's going on with this guy? I thought, to some extent, Vollis’s response to the skepticism says a lot about art to me. If you want to do art, you have to follow some kind of a vision. You have to simply decide this is where I'm going and I'm gonna see where the journey takes me. I fell in love with him with that comment.
What are you hoping that people gain when they watch the film?
I hope they don’t think about the film at all while they're watching it. It's kind of one of the measures that I've come to believe is important in film. It’s important to forget you're watching something and turn your critical mind off. In a way, that shows the film really works. And then, all of your critical thinking, your evaluative, analytical thinking, can be done afterwards.
Mimi and I have come to think of the aftertaste of our films as sweet. And I think the sweet taste of this film is simply that one person alone can make big changes. And the other one is simply that art is much more powerful than we think. Vollis represents both of those things. Everybody working on this project, both on the park and on our film was sort of channeling Vollis. You know, his persistence, creativity, and imagination. In the headquarters, where they were restoring, rebuilding, and repainting the whirligigs, there was this large sign that said, W. W. V. D. “What would Vollis do?” Our goal was always to make sure we were making the film in that spirit.