This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.

“The Winds of Change: When a Place Changes… and Changes a Place” by Kimberly Van Dyk

Vollis Simpson

Vollis Simpson

Kimberly Van Dyk: To anybody in the audience, I’m not a curator, I’m not a conservator, I’m a downtown development manager. I’ve worked in community development planning and downtown development, and historic preservation for years. Although, I do see a lot of similarities in what we’re doing in the Vollis Simpson Whirligig park project and some of the questions we’ve grappled with about conservation and whether or not to move the art in a way that we do with historic buildings. Keep that in mind when you’re listening to my presentation.

Many of you may be familiar with Vollis Simpson. I think 4 years ago at the last conference we had some of our folks that are working on this project talking. Vollis Simpson is from Wilson County. He was born there, lived his entire life there. He died about 2 years ago when he was 94 years old. He spent his adult life as a large equipment mover, and a rigger, and a farmer, and upon his retirement he decided to take all of these collected pieces of material that he had, others that he purchased or was given, and make giant kinetic sculptures. He placed them in a field in Lucama which is in Wilson County, North Carolina. This is what the site looked like before we moved the art, and you can see, on this site, some of the reflective quality of the art. Vollis put reflectors, highway signs that he cut up, onto all of his pieces, and so although they are not lit up when you shine lights on them at night they look like they are, indeed, lit up or illuminated.
This place, over the years, had a variety of names such as ‘Acid Park’ or ‘The Lights’ because when it was dark at night and you would drive up to the site and shine lights on it and everything was spinning and twirling, it looked pretty much like you were on an acid trip, so therefore ‘Acid Park’.

So my presentation is about changing and how the original site where Vollis’ work was is changing and has changed and how the site where they are being moved to is also changing. Overtime Vollis erected 33 sculptures on this piece of land that you see up here, and overtime he didn’t do a lot to maintain them. Overtime, they did, of course, deteriorate and rusted and seized up and in many cases started falling apart. I’ll get to that point later. They had come into a state of pretty bad repair. This is a close up of one of the works called ‘Saw Dog’.

Detail of a Vollis whirligig.

Detail of a Vollis whirligig.

I’m going to talk just briefly about Wilson, North Carolina. Wilson, North Carolina is the county seat of Wilson County and Lucama is just outside of there. The site where Vollis’ original work was, is about 10 minutes from downtown. Wilson, North Carolina was the world’s greatest tobacco market at one time. More tobacco was traded or auctioned off in downtown Wilson, than any other place in the world. They had tobacco festivals and tobacco parades, you can see in this picture. They had a downtown full of old tobacco warehouses. Overtime as the auctions changed, the farmers had direct contracts with the tobacco companies. The auction house were no longer needed. The whole economy of downtown started to deteriorate, and these beautiful tobacco warehouses like you see here, the Smith Warehouse, were all torn down except for 2. There are 2 remaining historic tobacco warehouses in downtown Wilson, North Carolina. That is the other place we’re talking about.

Fast forward to about 2008 to 2009. The community of Wilson decided to take a look at how they were going to grow and develop. Would they grow just at the edges with new Walmarts? Or were they going to look at preserving their inner city and bringing life back into that? They did a comprehensive plan, again I’m probably talking about a little bit outside of what most of you folks deal with, but a comprehensive plan about how they were going to grow. It focused mostly on center city revitalization. During this time there were a lot of stakeholder meetings where the community came together and said ‘this is what we want for our community by 2030′. In several of these sessions when they were talking about downtown, the public envisioned a park in the middle of their downtown in this old historic tobacco district. In this park they wanted to see Vollis Simpsons’ whirligigs.

Loading up a whirligig for relocation in Wilson.

Loading up a whirligig for relocation in Wilson.

Keep in mind that for many years, there had been different attempts to save or preserve Vollis’ whirligigs where they were at in the field at Lucama. I was not in this community until 2009. I can’t really speak to why all those didn’t work out, but they didn’t. There was sort of a convergence that happened. The community envisioned this new place that would have whirligigs. They talked to Simpson family, and until that time Vollis had not wanted his whirligigs touched, moved, or bothered by anyone. He, like so many others, had experienced vandalism, criticism, and those sorts of things over the years. He just sort of wanted to be left alone and he didn’t want anyone to bother him or the art, but at that time he was getting older and he knew that he wouldn’t be around forever, and I suppose he wondered how those whirligigs were going to survive where they were.

He and his family liked this idea of putting the whirligigs in this park in historic downtown Wilson, and so in May of 2010 a partnership was formed between the Simpson family, the Wilson downtown development corporation, Wilson downtown properties and other nonprofit, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the city of Wilson to create this whirligig park. And so it began.

You have the whirligigs coming from the place of their original location, as you can see in the one photo, and moved into a big warehouse in downtown where the repair and conservation process started. A few years ago I believe that Jefferson Curry, Dennis Montegna from the park service, and Ron Harvey from Tuckerbrook Conservation were here talking about this process. We consulted with a variety of people on the conservation of this work and were able to come up with protocols, and we were also able to engage the artist. You can see in this picture here that’s Dennis Montegna, but in the other picture you can see Vollis actually reaching out and touching one of the blades of the whirligigs and his wife Jean in the red coat. That was a real blessing, we feel, to be able to have the artist for several years working with us on this conservation process.

Installations at Whirligig Park.

Installations at Whirligig Park.

Just a little bit more about protocols and documentations Another interesting thing that we were able to do is, Wilson has interesting demographics. We have a pretty high unemployment, one of the highest in North Carolina. Again, some of the remnants of that dying or changing tobacco market. We were able to partner with local nonprofits that have workforce training programs to work with the experts in the repair and conservation headquarters, and get some job training skills. I think Terry talked this morning about working with others in the community, and the interesting things of working with people who maybe aren’t use to showing up to work on time or showing up to work at all. So we had some of those wonderful journeys that we had together with people from different parts of the community and I think that really helped enrich the project. It also helped grow the awareness of Vollis and his work, and the appreciation for his work in a much broader sector of the community than we could have ever hoped for.

We also designed a park. We had a big public engagement process around this. This was an interesting process because we wanted the park to reflect the community and the heritage of the place where it was from, but we also wanted to it be really well designed so we engaged some experts. We engaged the whole community, including people who thought that saving Vollis’ work was the stupidest idea they had ever heard of. If you get them supporting then it’s better to have the naysayers on your side than against you.

Whirligig Park Design.

Whirligig Park Design.

This is the layout of the park. There’s some interesting components in this design. I talked about the tobacco heritage, and if you’ve ever been to a farm you will know that things are laid out in rows, and if you’ve ever been inside of a tobacco warehouse where they bring the bails of tobacco you will see they are laid out in rows. You look down a tobacco warehouse, an auction house, and you will see rows and rows of tobacco. You see the ordering process of this design here, you see rows going all the way across the design of the park. That is reminiscent of this actual spot where there used to be a tobacco warehouse that burned down. So it’s as if you were standing in that tobacco warehouse with rows of tobacco.

Also, harkening back to Vollis’ original site. On Vollis’ original site it was actually about 2 acres. This site is about 2 acres. It was a square. This is a square. In the middle of the site, out in Lucama, there is a pond. We’re not having a pond in the middle of the site. However, you see that green space. That will be an amphitheater and that is reminiscent of the pond. Then when we grappled with where we should put these whirligigs in the park? How should we arrange them? Should we arrange them by theme? How should we arrange them? We decided that we couldn’t arrange them in any better way than Vollis had them arranged on his original site. So the whirligigs are arranged around this green space, which reflects back to the pond, in almost the same way they were on the original site. This is another picture of it. There’s other features in the park- a water feature, a shade structure, things like that.

We also did a lot of planning, marketing and education, working again with state and national institutions, and engaging the local community all the way down to elementary kids in art class making their own whirligigs and marching through the annual whirligig festival parade with their little whirligigs that they made and then putting them in the site of the future park.

Of course, this has been done mainly through fundraising so we have worked to raise a lot of money, and we’re still working on it. We’ve raised about 4 million to acquire the art, repair and conserve the art, and we need about 3 million more to actually build the park. So that’s the point we’re at right now in raising that last 3 million.

2011Vollis received the North Carolina Award.

2011Vollis received the North Carolina Award.

Vollis received towards the end of his life, a lot of recognition. He got some throughout the course of his life. I don’t think he was ever looking for it, but it came nonetheless. In 2011, he received the North Carolina award which is one of the highest awards you can get in the state of North Carolina. Just after he passed, his whirligigs were voted the official state folk art of North Carolina.

The other interesting thing that has happened because we’re building this park is that it has started to revitalize the downtown. So we have seen investment in our downtown. You can see on this map, the green spot right there is the park. Within a 2 block radius there is about 20 million dollars in real estate investment that has either happened, is happening, or is planned to happen. You can see the spots on the map. Most of it is directly adjacent to the park in old tobacco warehouses. You can see some of it here. This was a project done with historic preservation tax credits. Downtown living which we’ve never had before- things like new restaurants. We’ve come upon, through this process, a plan to redevelop the downtown that centers around sort of the spirit of Vollis’ artwork- this self-taught artist, this person who made things with his hands, who made things with things that he had, and a community that has a history of pulling itself up by its bootstraps as well.

I should also point out, on this map, you can see the yellow outline is the park, and then you’ll see two corridors on either side of that. One is Goldsboro street which is going to be our avenue of the arts, and the other is Douglas which is going to be our avenue of the sciences because if you think of Vollis’ work it’s sort of like art and science coming together- physics, kinetics, wind energy, and of course art, design, sculpture.

Wilson, North Carolina also owns its own fiber optic network. We have the fastest internet speeds in all of North Carolina, and this is a community owned broadband system. This is where that sort of crossroads of term and innovation comes. Science and art come together. This is how we are capitalizing on this. We’re taking the idea of artists, and artwork, and self-taught artists and that type of thing along with high tech and creation and innovation and we’re trying to populate this geographic area with artists that are similar, in some regards, to Vollis, at least in spirit as well as high tech businesses. As it turns out, a lot of those high tech workers and high tech businesses like to be around creative artists. It should be an interesting pairing.

The picture that you see here is not one of our whirligigs. That is outside the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Really why we’re doing this project is to save the art. It is to respect the artist, and it is also to weave a tighter community so it’s multi-faceted. I could talk a long time about how that’s happening in many regards.

The Simpsons talk with conservators Dennis Montagna and Ron Harvey.

The Simpsons talk with conservators Dennis Montagna and Ron Harvey.

Here you see the site of the future park. We do have 11 whirligigs that have been repaired and conserved and are up on the site. There will be a total of 31 of them. In one picture here you can see the original location of Vollis’ workshop and across the street from that is that picture I showed you earlier that had all the whirligigs. Then on the other side you see a picture of Vollis’ widow as well as one of his sons on the day that we put up these whirligigs and dedicated them.

I will say that one of the greatest joys about this project is seeing how much Vollis loved what was happening. He loved to see those whirligigs move in the wind again because that’s what he loved. He loved the motion, and he loved to see those colors come back so vibrant. He loved the colors and he loved the motion and he hadn’t seen them like that in probably 30 years. The family is also very happy with it.

This is the site where the whirligigs were. There are still 4 of them out there that we haven’t moved. So it looks very different. Again you’re taking these works from a rural setting to an urban setting so there’s a lot of things that we had to grapple with and questions that we had, and things that we had to come up with good solutions for, or come to terms with. Now we’re starting to think about the original site. This original site is still owned by the family. Frankly, they kind of don’t want anyone around it still. Jean, his widow, sort of wants to keep that space quiet and sacred. We’re thinking about, even though it is outside the city limits and I do work for the city, as a group, what about this original site? What about this workshop? What about starting conversations with the family about what might come of this site in the future? Those are some of things that we are thinking about right now.

Again, another picture of what the park site looks like now. I just wanted to show you little video of that day when we dedicated these first 11 so you could see the whirligigs actually in motion. When you are out there on a windy day and they are moving in the wind, it’s truly awe inspiring.

My very last slide. You can see the cars driving by and slowing down and looking. I didn’t learn this until the day we dedicated these whirligigs, but Mrs. Simpson, Jean, told us that when the wind was really blowing and these things were really moving that Vollis would look at them and say “Look, they’re going to town, they’re going to town.” That day when we dedicated them, the wind was really moving. It almost brought me to tears. I just thought it was so prophetic when she told us that story that Vollis would always say “they’re going to town” because literally in the end they have, indeed, gone to downtown- historic downtown Wilson.

Abstract:
What happens when a major artist decides to move his collection from its original pastoral location into the neighboring small city’s downtown? What happens when a community plans for its future around this major arts asset which begins to change its economic future? And what becomes of the original location of the collection in the rural setting? Come hear how the winds of change are shaping Wilson, North Carolina with Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs.

Speaker Biography

Ms. Kimberly Van Dyk, Planning and Community Revitalization Director
Ms. Van Dyk serves as the director of the Planning and Community Revitalization Department for the City of Wilson, North Carolina. In this role, all aspects of center city revitalization fall under her purview including long range planning, historic preservation, community development, and downtown development. In conjunction, she serves as the executive director for two non-profit entities, Wilson Downtown Development Corporation and Wilson Downtown Properties Inc., which work in partnership on economic development, property redevelopment, creative placemaking, business recruitment and retention, design enhancement, public and private infrastructure improvement, historic preservation, marketing, and special events for Historic Downtown Wilson. Ms. Van Dyk has over twenty years of experience in downtown development, neighborhood business district development, community development and planning. Prior to her appointment with the City of Wilson, she was the founder and executive director of Neighborhood Ventures, a nonprofit serving twenty historic business districts and surrounding neighborhoods in Grand Rapids…Michigan’s second largest city. There she was instrumental in establishing the state’s first Corridor Improvement District in 2009. She previously served as the director of the Neighborhood Business Specialist Program and assistant director of South East Economic Development, both in Michigan. She holds a master’s degree in public administration, a graduate certificate in nonprofit and government leadership and administration, and bachelor’s degrees in both business communications and German, all from Western Michigan University

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