|Whirligig by Vollis Simpson of Wilson, NC, on display|
in Wilmington, NC, at the Cameron Art Museum
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.
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.
|Work of a junkyard poet|
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.