Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Is a Whirligig?

Whirligig by Vollis Simpson of Wilson, NC, on display
in Wilmington, NC, at the Cameron Art Museum
Have you seen a whirligig recently? Everyone seems to have a particular idea of what a whirligig is and when to use the word. Simply, a whirligig is an object that spins or whirls. Individually as well as in groupings, whirligigs have become noteworthy, particularly in the American South, as an artistic form of creative expression.

A whirligig -- as fun to say as it is to see -- is a whimsical, wind-powered creation that whirls and turns on a pivot. The term dates to the fifteenth century and appears to have its roots in the Middle English word of whirlegigg, which was formed from whirlen (to whirl) and gigg (top). The term is applied to a variety of items – living and inanimate objects.

Creation by Self-Taught Artist

Small whirligig by Simpson

A whirligig is an inimitable creation by a self-taught artist who has no formal training – except for the whirligig that is a beetle, so named because it swims about in circles. With two pairs of eyes and clubbed antennae, the whirligig beetle lives on the surface of water where it spins and spins. Otherwise, whirligigs are inanimate and typically crafted by folk or visionary artists. The simplest wind-powered whirligig is a pinwheel, which demonstrates an important feature: blade surface. Although the designs of whirligigs may be simple, some are very complex, particularly when a creative artist such as Vollis Simpson of Wilson, NC, finds a “man or mule, hat or cat, hidden in any castoff sheet of steel” and fashions it into a whirligig.

Components are crafted out of wood, plastic, metal, and other materials, sometimes taken from discarded objects to recycle their parts and extend their lives, and then hand-painted to provide artistic expression. Antique whirligigs have been preserved in museums as creative expressions of earlier generations, as described in The New York Times. However, whirligigs are making a modern comeback, with credit for reviving them during the 1980s given to Ander Lunde of Chapel Hill, NC, who published eight books on how to build whirligigs.

Literary Connection

A whirligig as an artistic expression is sometimes even literary. For example, Whirligigs is the title of a collection of twenty-four short stories by North Carolina author O. Henry (born William Sydney Porter) that also includes the well-known “The Ransom of Red Chief.” In the collection, a lesser-known story, which takes the title of “The Whirligig of Life” to express the whimsical nature of life and relationships that change as the wind blows, recounts the visits of a Tennessee couple to a justice of the peace to “divo’ce” unhappily only to reunite blissfully the next day. In addition, Shakespeare uses whirlagig as a metaphor for “time” in Twelfth Night when the clown Feste states that “the whirligig of time brings in his revenges,” an expression we know currently as “you reap what you sow.” Sometimes whirligig is a label applied to a person, such as in The Gambler by Tyodor Dostoyevsky, whose character expresses concern that a stepfather “is going to marry that silly whirligig of a Frenchwoman--that actress, or something worse.”

Whirligigs stand guard over a field at the entrance to Fearrington
Village in Chatham County, NC

Cultural and Educational Destination

More often the artistic expression is visual art – and a tourist attraction. Sightseers enjoy watching whirligigs move as the wind blows and learning about the artists who created them for fun. Some whirligigs can be found at restaurants and in parks, and others adorn private gardens and yards. However, they attract more attention when massed in collections. The most famous location probably is the “whirligig farm” on Wiggins Mill Road in Lucama, NC, that had been constructed by Simpson on his land where more than thirty whirligigs, some more than five feet high, once attracted many visitors. Tourists are now directed to a new two-acre downtown park in nearby Wilson where these whirligigs have been designated to serve as a centerpiece to help shape the city’s industrial artisan district and be a cultural and educational destination. Wilson also holds an annual Whirligig Festival in November, and this event includes a whirligig building contest with Simpson as a judge.

On display at Cameron Art Museum
Small whirligig by Vollis Simpson

Cultural Recognition

Work of a junkyard poet
Whirligigs crafted by folk artists are also exclusive justification for a cultural award or recognition. Although garden shops, particularly online suppliers such as Wind & Weather and Plow and Hearth, sell mass-produced whirligigs, the ones individually crafted by folk artists such as Simpson, whose work has been profiled by Public Broadcasting System, are recognized for their cultural contributions. Although Simpson was wittily labeled a “junkyard poet” by The New York Times, he has been celebrated by organizations such as the N.C. Folklore Society for his “meaningful contributions to the transmission, appreciation and observance of traditional culture and folklife” and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources that presented him the North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor. Southern Living has also presented a Heroes of the New South Award to Simpson for his contributions to art and culture. In addition, his work is now part of the permanent collections of the American Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore, High Museum in Atlanta, and N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. 

When Simpson and his whirligigs were honored during a fundraiser at the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, NC, I visited to gauge the interest and reaction of the museum’s patrons. I left with the feeling that whirligigs tell an authentic story in our regional folklife. Although whirligigs mass-produced in Asia with stamped and painted metal can be cheaply bought, the true artistic ones – only the ones that connect to culture – hold value in the American South.

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