Creating a Conservation Plan for Vollis Simpson's Whirligigs, Part 1 - Dennis Montagna

Uploaded by ncptt on 03.04.2012

Church: Without further ado, I’d like to introduce and get started today. Our first
speaker is Dennis Montagna. Dr. Dennis Montagna is now with the National Park Service. He
directs the National Park Services’ Monument Research and Preservation Program, which is
based in the Philadelphia Regional Office. This program provides comprehensive assistance
in interpretation and care of historic cemeteries, outdoor sculptures, public monuments, to the
managers of National Park sites and other [ ? ]. For example the work he’s going to
be talking about today with the outdoor sculpture at Vol Simpson. So without further ado, Dennis
Montagna and Dennis will be part of a three man team here.
Montagna: That’s right. [ ? ] basketball. Okay, alright, that sounds great, okay. Okay,
well I think that the first thing I want to say is how incredibly lucky we are and especially
after seeing the presentations yesterday and the ones we’ll see today. We still have
our artists with us and I think we think about that more and more and [ ? ] because we have
an amazing opportunity that many people who’ve worked on sculpture sites like the ones we’ve
been talking about don’t have. Their sculptures, their artists are long gone. They didn’t
get a chance to ask them all the questions that we’re having a chance to ask Vollis
and really get to know them the way we’ve gotten to know Vollis over the last couple
of years and actually in addition, I’m going to take this luck thing a little further,
I’m real lucky, we’re all real lucky because when this conference was first announced I
went ahead and put in a proposal to do something on Vollis. About a month ago, we were able
to get two other speakers to be part of this and so rather than having to do a solo, I’m
really fortunate to be able to have two people intimately involved with the project, one
on a day to day basis and one slightly less so. They’ll be speaking as well after I’ve
finished, Jefferson Curry will come up and talk. Jefferson has been talking to Vollis
for about the last year and a half to two years and has built a relationship with him
and is able to get information that we are just amazingly lucky to have. Our other speaker
is Ron Harvey. He’s a conservator who has come in at the end of the project and is able
to do that…you only get one shot at proper preservation planning, proper conservation
planning, and so we really fell like that this is happening now so we’re going to
do our little tag team. Just quickly, what my role I think today is,
is to introduce you to Vollis’s work, to introduce you specifically to the project
that is underway right now, which is this effort to preserve a collection of Vollis
Simpson’s whirligigs that currently reside on his farm in Lucama, North Carolina. Lucama
is located probably about five or six miles off of I-95 so it’s in eastern North Carolina
a little way south of Rocky Mount. There are thirty of these that he built probably over
about the last thirty years or so and this is a shot of one of the larger ones. They
vary in size, they vary on complexity to very immense pieces like this one and some smaller
ones. We’re dealing with a whole host of different materials that range from various
kinds of metal, there are wooden elements, there are fiberglass elements that slide on
the bottom, constructed out of a fiberglass water tank that then had other attachments
put to metal attachments, bicycle parts, reflectors, you see the colored elements, one on top,
those are all cut from signs, cut from various highway reflectors and attached to little
wooden boxes. So you begin to see some of the conservation issues in having this variety
of materials out of doors. In addition to all this, we have paint coatings of various
different kinds, and Jeff will tell you more about Vollis’s paint selections and surface
preparations. Here’s another view of them. Here’s an aerial view done from a cherry
picker. This site is his farm site located actually at a crossroads. There’s a water
element in the middle, there’s a pond here. The thing about the reflectors, these reflectors
that are attached gives a whole other aspect to Vollis’s pieces. They not only have a
daytime presence but they have a nighttime presence as well. If you are coming up on
the site with car headlights, the whole site lights up when your headlights hit them just
the right way, and here’s two views, one at night and then a view taken, this is in
the shop where conservation is underway right now.
But I want to show you a little bit about how the sight is structured. This is the site
we were just looking at. This is that water feature. So the Vollis pieces on the site
are located in this area here, running along this area here, but really the highest concentration
of them has been placed at this area here. So when you come down this road at night,
that’s when you get the most dramatic light show, and I don’t know whether or not, you
have to just talk to Vollis specifically about this, but I got a feel that this was an intentional
thing, that he really intended this to be a primary point of approach, at least at night.
This is the view that you have as you come up on them. And again talking about site,
this is, so the whirligigs are here, this is where Vollis’s shop is. Here’s a view
of it. You approach it from this corner and it’s at this point that it becomes kind
of a fortified enclosure which he opens up every morning and then closes up at night.
This is basically where Vollis does work during the day and [holds forth]. As you [ ? ] he
entertains a number of people during the course of the day. People have found him, they’ve
come off the interstate and they tend to find him. This is where he usually has himself
positioned so he’s sitting on his chair and then if you go back, back inside the enclosed
shop, he has a whole host of these smaller ones and he really has created different levels
of his whirligigs. You have the large pieces which are on his farm, which he has sold as
commissions, but then you also have a lot of these little small scale pieces that I
think are really intended more to have something to be selling to people that are coming off
the highway. He has become quite well known and I think
that becoming well known occurred probably around the 1990’s. If you’ll sort of look
at commissions that he had at that time and then a recent boost in the last couple of
years, he’s become quite well known. There’s a New York Times article from April of 2010
that brought some notoriety but in the mid 1990’s people were taking notice of him.
At this point, he’d been making whirligigs for probably 16 or 17 years. The Science Museum
of Minnesota visited him and put a whole education unit together on wind and wind power based
on Vollis’s pieces and that unit is still up on their website, you can go and see it.
He received a couple of very prominent commissions at that time as well. The American Visionary
Art Museum in Baltimore, which was really getting rolling at that point, commissioned
him to create a whirligig and it’s their centerpiece. Now here’s the AVAM, the Maine
Museum, a secondary museum and Vollis’s whirligig sits right here and you can see
the view of it up on the top. So that was 1996 as well. Also in 1996, he was commissioned
to create four relatively small whirligigs to be part of Folk Art Park, which was an
element of the run up to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and you see that. It’s kind of an
odd park as it exists on a highway overpass and Vollis and several other self-taught artists
are exhibited in this area and we looked at these recently and they’re in various stages
of functioning. Some are working, some are not.
Here in North Carolina, his home state, the North Carolina Museum of Art commissioned
a piece in 2002. As part of this notoriety, Vollis is getting talked with a lot. There
are some pretty ambitious video projects that have been going on, and Jefferson is going
to talk a lot about that when he speaks, so I really won’t talk much about that. Vollis
interacting with the world, but Jeff’s going to be dealing with that.
So these pieces that have been out of doors, because of the varied fusion of materials
and varied fusion of paint coatings, they are in many cases, in pretty rough condition
now. There’s a move underfoot to try to do something about it, try to preserve the
collection and this got rolling probably a couple of years ago. You see a photograph
on the left, black and white photos from 1989 when he’s posing beneath a very large piece
of his that he’s added to over time. This one is termed “V-Simpson.” You can see
the way the piece appeared recently with paint no longer present on a lot of the structure.
It functions partially but not entirely. So the challenge really, I think in some cases,
to both put a plan together to preserve the works but also to try to build public awareness
of his importance as a sculptor and the fact that we typically, other 20th century sculptors
have worked both with metals, painted metals, use of color, movement, mechanical elements
and most commonly we know about Calder and Calder stabiles, see one in the middle and
then say George Rickey’s sculpture, but in terms of conservation we’re dealing with
very much a lot of the same issues with Vollis’s pieces, as we are with these sort of better
known or what we would call main stream artists. So I think one of our challenges is to try
to really create a conservation program that’s going to give sculptors like Vollis more their
due, the way we would treat what we consider main stream.
In essence, I think one thing we are going to really break down that notion of an outsider
or visionary artist, these are all sculptors and the sculpture needs to be valued and cared
for. I think that’s been the intent here. A couple of years ago, the Vollis Simpson’s
whirligig project got started, and this is a project that’s going to involve the removal
of most of the whirligigs from his farm and their transport down to downtown Wilson, North
Carolina, which is a large town probably about six or seven miles from Vollis’s farm. His
family is retaining ownership of the land and they are on board with having these pieces
moved. This is an aerial view that shows the site of the whirligig park. This is downtown
Wilson and Jeff again will talk more about this. This is the tobacco warehouse part of
Wilson. Wilson was a huge center for tobacco production and processing throughout the twentieth
century. So this is the space that’s going to become the whirligig park. Really it’s
actually more this space here, that you see in this view here. So this is the center of
town. This is downtown Wilson. This is the main drag of Wilson right here. So this is
really very close to the center of town. The project has been very fortunate to have
gotten some very impressive funding which has really allowed them to move forward with
a lot of the efforts that we’ve been talking about. Initially a North Carolina Arts Council
grant for $35,000 to begin the documentation, park design, and conservation planning. The
National Endowment has given two or three grants at this point including an Our Town
grant for a quarter of a million which focuses on conservation and it also centers on employment
and job training. An Art Place grant, which is really a consortium of various funders
that have been bundled together, among them Ford Mellon, the Knight and Rockefeller Foundations
and again tied in with the job training and employment, this is a grant that could in
the words of its sponsors, is akin to venture capital, seeing art as a linchpin for economic
development, and that’s really the hope in Wilson is that getting the Simpson collection
downtown and in good maintainable condition is really going to help Wilson to really develop
more of an arts based economy over the years that would include art, music and other things
like that, so there’s a half a million dollar grant that came from there. So that’s really
allowed the project to move forward. The park is in the design phase right now.
This is a very schematic design done by Lapis and Havener, a landscape architect firm out
of Durham, North Carolina. This is continually being tweaked and worked on so, this is I
think, a schematic produced this past summer but there’s already been changes to it as
well. So then the question of how these things are cared for, how they are conserved and
prepared to go back out of doors. Again, here’s another case of being extremely fortunate.
The large square shows the eventual site, the whirligig park. Only a block away is the
Barnes Auto Parts warehouse. This is an empty warehouse complex of buildings in downtown
Wilson which has been made available free of charge and this has become the conservation
lab. When I first toured the site, when it was empty, I thought well, this is a conservators
dream come true. I mean you, I don’t know of a conservator of large scale objects that
wouldn’t just fall all over him or herself just to be able to have this as a space. You
have several different discreet warehouse areas, you have an outdoor space as well for
the things you need to be doing out of doors as opposed to indoors. So it really has become
a great venue and we’ll see more of that when Ron speaks next or after Jeff.
Alright, so then taking up in December 2010 was the first phase of removals of whirligigs.
At this point, probably as of last week, twenty-one of the thirty odd whirligigs have been now
brought indoors. This was the initial removal just a little over a year ago and the placement
of three of them, this is the initial three that were moved in and again, the thing about
this project is that Vollis has been involved every step of the way. I was personally really
concerned and worried about the notion that they were going to be separated from the site
that they were initially placed in, but the more I sort of thought about it and looked
and thought about the fact that if Vollis is on board, this is another phase of the
project for Vollis. This is another part of Vollis’s work. Because he is as involved
as he is, I think that he feels that this is the best chance for these works to continue
functioning the way he had intended them to function, and he in talking with him I think
Jeff can talk more about this, they don’t really seem to be site specific the way other
environments are where there is a clear progression of how you have to move through a site and
experience it. Vollis seems to conceive of these more as individual elements.
So, I want to say that one of our challenges for the future is the long term conservation
and that’s really what Ron is going to talk about next. So we are going to break it now
and then we’re going to load up Jeff’s…we’re going to put Jeff on, and Jeff is going to
talk to you about his work with Vollis over the last year and a half or two years and
the way that relationship has developed over time. So thank you.
Applause I guess I’ll introduce Jeff while we’re
loading up his presentation. Jeff Curry is a folklorist. He studies at the University
of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He is completing a master’s thesis on Lumbee sheetrock workers
from the Lumbee Indian Tribe in eastern North Carolina, South Carolina, so he’s working
on that and he’s branching out of his Indian studies into Vollis. He befriended Vollis
about two years ago and he’s been talking with him over time. In addition to his interviews
with Vollis, Jeff also runs the day to day operation at the conservation shop so the
repairs that are now underway at the shop are being done under Jeff’s guidance. He’s
been the registrar for the project and has worn many, many hats and will wear many in
the future as well. The registrar is handling documentation of, as you can imagine, more
parts of things than you can ever dream. So with that I’ll turn it over to Jeff.
Curry: Thank you. I’m going to keep my phone up here so I know what time I’m working
with. Dennis said I wear a few hats on the project,
documentation, collection, manager, a couple of years ago I started working with Vollis
through an Arts Council grant from the State Arts Council. I was doing some contract folklore
work and one of the reasons I was really drawn to the project is I’ve been working with
Lumbee sheet rockers, and I’m interested in labor and how people make a living and
how culture surrounds that. This is what drew me because I feel like a lot of Vollis’s
work comes out of his history of labor, and I’m going to talk about that a little bit
during this, as well as just working with Vollis.
First off, I want to just talk about how I approach things in working with Vollis. These
are kind of my rules to live by; listen, pay attention, communicate with him, with other
people on the project, self-awareness of how I’m going about this transparency with him,
commitment to the project, to Vollis, self-evaluate, humor which I think some people forget, you
know, its fun. Have grace and have humility. This is kind of how I go about working as
a folklorist and on other projects I’ve done over the years. And in working with Vollis,
I’m going to just go through just different things that have come out of working with
Vollis and answering questions as well as some of his life history as well as the work
How I go about working with Vollis specifically is in interviews, I kind of had for probably
the first three months I didn’t throw a recorder on, I just talked and tried to just
figure out who he was, let him figure out who I am and so that’s more of the informal.
Continuing now, I mean, he knows, I always tell him I have the recorder and everything
but you know, the recording is mostly low key in trying to get the stories and the history
and what the whirligigs are about, what he’s about. I also do some formal interviews whenever
I am really concerned about a piece or we have specific questions that we want answered.
In visits, I can’t get any work done which is what Vollis says a lot. He’s 93 years
old and he works pretty much every day. He’s continually making pieces. He’s, you know,
I’ll go up and he’s welding or he’s grinding or he’s cutting metal. He legs
are getting a little shaky on him and his knees are giving out, he is 93, but I keep
that in my mind that he wants to work. So I schedule times when I do want to record
or ask him something or take pictures around his schedule and what he wants to do.
Family… if you need Vollis, call Jean. Jean is his wife and she sets his schedules and
any time people, I’ve been kind of a liaison with Vollis and the family, and other people
who want to interview him or work with him or talk with him and tour around and the project
and Vollis, and so I’ve kind of gotten pretty close to Jean as well and his daughter and
one of his sons. Another son who I don’t know as well but the family and I have gotten
close over this time and the project.
Images… nobody wants to have a camera stuck in their face every time they see you so I
don’t take pictures every time I talk to him. I do have a camera in the car in case
something comes up but I try not to be completely invasive into his life, you know, just invading
every moment.
So starting out, Vollis growing up, Dennis mentioned Wilson was the world’s greatest
tobacco market in case you didn’t know, and people in eastern North Carolina will
let you know. This is flue cured tobacco in North Carolina and Wilson Tobacco was the
king and queen during the annual tobacco festival which has been transitioned because of the
down turn in tobacco production into the [ ? ] festival. And from field, Vollis worked growing up in
the fields in Wilson on his family’s land to the barn. This is actually stringing or
tying tobacco to put in or to cure in the barn. To the auction and tobacco auctions
now, the way they do it is all through contracts, but back in the day, Vollis used to work in
tobacco warehouses during the time when it went to auction and things were sold. This
is one of the massive warehouses in downtown Wilson that’s now been torn down. It’s
called Smith’s Warehouse but another warehouse called the High Dollar is part of the project
and where a museum site would go in indoor space.
How do I click, okay, there we go (technical/media issues). So I just want to give you a touch
of tobacco auctioning. This is speed rigs for those of you who might remember. I’m
not getting anything. I’ll just move on.
Moving structures…Vollis grew up farming as I mentioned but he also moved buildings
with his father. His father moved barns, houses, bridges, other structures and in Vollis’s
working life, this is Parker’s Barbeque, Wilson, North Carolina, which was the place
people stopped after tobacco market. In moving structures, he learned a lot of the skills
that he used later in making his art work as well as just in his own business working
life, engineering, mechanics, as well as creativity. Vollis has talked a lot about how you have
to be creative in order to move a house; it’s going to present you problems continually.
And I hope this place but then Vollis’s, the left arrows are [ ? ] common. This is
1930 above and 1940 below and this is a short piece about how Vollis is talking about when
he was a young kid, he went with his father down to work on a road, they had to move buildings
and stuff back from the highway between Plymouth and what’s called Little Washington or the
original Washington down east.
(Technical /media Issues- Playing video/ audio interview with Vollis Simpson 27:29). I’d
let it go all the way but he’s talking about bears and trying to get bear traps to as he
puts it, cut some folks legs. Vollis has had a problem over the years because he collects
metal to make his pieces, of people stealing from him and he has fought back somewhat and
patrolled the land and the whirligigs continually for about thirty-five years and his family
has as well. People keep an eye out. It’s a place that people want to go to drink sometimes
and hangout and people who, especially when metal prices have gone up; people have stolen
a lot of metal from him over the years. So it’s to a point where it upsets him but
Vollis doesn’t lay down for anybody.
Another thing that’s been talked about a lot is Vollis and WWII and he’s talked about
Saipan and being on Saipan and people bring up as evidence he built a whirligig, a windmill
when he was in the war. This is not Vollis. This is pictures that I have found of, it
was quite a common thing for at Guadalcanal, Saipan and other places to build windmills
to wash clothes and visitors [ ? ] also found four of those types of windmills. Vollis kind
of skirts the issue every time I ask him about it and this is, you’ll hear him, this is
another little recording where he doesn’t talk about the windmills but he talks about
something else that he built when he was on Saipan during the war. The war influenced
him, he loves airplanes, he was on a flight line, and airplanes would come and go all
the time and in a lot of his work, you can see the influence and the love for airplanes
that he has in his pieces. Some are planes and then some just look like parts and pieces
from planes. (Playing video/audio interview with Vollis Simpson, 31:53). So I asked him
about the washing machines and he kind of went to the motorcycles, and I thought a lot
about this and every time he kind of will tell the motorcycle story before he’ll tell
the washing machine, and I think one of the reasons is I found out that it was a fairly
common thing was that a lot of people were building washing machines out of windmills
but not too many people were building motorcycles out of spare engines and bicycles frames and
in a lot of his work later on you see a lot of bicycles being used and he has actually
put engines on some, but in talking with Vollis, he will just kind of steer me in different
directions. A lot of people would approach him like you know, this is just a little old
country boy, but Vollis is savvy and has dealt with the media and people coming to interview
him for twenty-five to thirty years, so he kind a knows the game, he knows what he wants
to talk about and he steers me in those directions but you know, I keep asking questions to try
to get to other issues that I’m curious about and want to know.
After he worked, he farmed, he owned a repair shop, he also moved buildings, he also moved
metal and he built tow trucks out of army surplus trucks and would weld on cranes and
other implements on the back. He built this piece in the late seventies or early eighties.
This is the first one, he said he had been thinking about it and, it’s not a windmill
in the traditional sense and you see just the different parts and pieces that he has
on it. Some of these are like lights off of cars; some are just regular commercial reflectors.
He also has a few reflectors from road signs on there. After he started putting these pieces
up and over about a ten year period about thirty-five years ago, he put about twenty
to thirty pieces. This is what happened. People started telling a legend similar to this.
I’ll just read it, “while in East Carolina University in Greenville, I heard a story
about a place called Acid Park. Legend has it one night a girl was on her way home from
prom. She dropped a little acid and right after she took the final turn in the road
before reaching home, her car ran off the road and wrapped itself around a tree. The
girl’s grieving father nailed and pasted reflectors to every surface around his home
and turn where his daughter died. And this is a story and people refer to the place as
Acid Park and this is a story that’s been repeated not just in the community but in
the greater region. That’s why Vollis started building these things. That’s why they’re
covered with reflectors. It upsets Vollis because his daughter is still alive and that
people are telling stories on him and in my opinion the way I’ve approached the story
and the way I think about the story is, it’s sort of like the food safety stories that
started popping up in the fifties. You know, it was unusual to go to restaurants, fast
food restaurants. They weren’t around until really the fifties and people started having
stories like Kentucky fried rats and people were anxious about where the food was coming
from. I think that’s pretty much why this story came about because people were anxious
why would this guy start putting up forty-five foot windmills in the middle of the country
all of a sudden after working for sixty something years. Grief is a great explanation for it
and it’s not the case but you know Vollis did it because he was thinking about it, because
he grew up and he has the engineering, mechanical, and creative ability to do it and he’s an
artist with metal. It didn’t take grief to push him into this.
So another thing I look at is the work. I look at materials and paints as well. We’re
going to talk about materials some, but Vollis works at the shop building mostly the small
pieces. He does do some work on some of the larger pieces but as Dennis mentioned earlier,
the small pieces that he keeps back in the inner sanctum of the shop, he builds a lot
of those at the shop. He works on still large pieces; he still takes commissions out of
his home which is nearby, where he has four or five barns and other shops.
Tools that he uses, this is his welding. He does a lot of stick welding and his leads
on his welder run about fifty feet so that he can stretch all the way around the shop
to do welding big pieces, small pieces. I’ve seen the leads, as you can see, duck taped
together start smoking multiple times, and Vollis actually caught himself on fire about
six or seven years ago now and that’s one of the reasons he slowed down. He actually
burned himself pretty bad in a welding accident and it took him awhile to recover and he couldn’t
do a lot of the maintenance work that he did before the accident. Side grinders you see
here, he cuts out metal reflectors with this and I’m going to show that in a second.
He’s got about ten or fifteen drill presses sitting around. He burns through them constantly
complaining they’re not built good enough, but Vollis is constantly drilling in metal,
he’s always working with metal.
Windmills, whirligigs…one of the things, you know people call them whirligigs but Vollis
calls them windmills often and has referred to them as such. Most of the time, you know,
he’ll kind of laugh and say “they call me an artist, I just build windmills” and
this is one of my favorite pieces that he did. It’s one of the most complex. Other
pieces that he did that are out in the shop, some close-ups, if you can see like a lot
of this stuff evokes airplanes to me, it’s almost like engines out of airplanes in a
lot of the pieces is what it kind of looks like. This one I actually thought of like
a turbine engine. This one, in naming them, I asked him what he wanted to name them and
he would, he’s like, “I don’t care what you name them.” I wanted him to give me
names but oftentimes he’s like “I don’t even got a name for it” and so I went through
so that we could keep them straight in the project and gave the one on the left “Milkshake
America” because it has about forty milkshake cups on it, the metal milkshake cups and folks
in the shop who were working with us thought this looked like a time machine so we called
it that. I talk about the names that I’ve given them with Vollis.
Moving the whirligigs… we use a local sign company to help us move the whirligigs, Stancils.
Vollis is involved in that and comes out usually when we move. This was actually a pretty rainy
day that he was out there on the move. Looking over and it’s interesting to get his reactions
when they come down, seeing them down on the ground after thirty years in the condition
and during the project we maintain the collections. Everything that comes off from nails to dirt,
we bag and tag and one of the things that came about is we tagged this that was sitting
in the eye beam right here and didn’t know where it went, and then we realized in the
shop that this tail mechanism that wags the dogs tail, which he put a drive all the way
down, was missing, and so one of the guys said “well, it’s a u bolt” [ ? ] well
we have a u bolt, so it’s good we save everything and it’s helped out the project just trying
to piece together because sometimes the ground below them is littered with pieces and parts
that have fallen off over the years. I’m not going to show, this is a small video of
it, because I’m running short on time.
In the shop Vollis has come by some and talked with us about what’s going on and he informs
the project in helping us out with materials because Vollis has collected materials over
the years, stock piled them in fact, and so if there is something we can’t find, chances
are he’s got it and has barns full of materials. That’s him and his wife Jean and they both
have been in the shop numerous times and come by just to see how things are going and what’s
going on in the shop and how it’s progressing and are genuinely happy with how everything
is going. One of the things as I mentioned earlier, the pieces that are in different
museums, he’s still building them, he’s still working. This is a piece that is going
to Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington. One of the things I’ve noticed is that these large
pieces that he gets commissions for, they’re all in similar shape, long and narrow, so
that he can transport them. So the transportation and setting them up off-site kind of dictates.
He did get the North Carolina Award recently and that’s his dog “Charlie”. I figured
I’d throw that in. Vollis loves animals. This is some of the folks, I just want to
give a shout out to some of the folks that are working in the shop and helping us to
work on Vollis’s pieces. So that’s mechanical in surface and that’s’ the last picture
I got of Vollis on the last move about a week ago.
Thank you.