These lectures were part of the Divine Disorder Conference on the Conservation of Outsider Folk art that was organized and hosted by NCPTT. The conference was held February 15-16, 2012 on the campus of Northwestern University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Dennis Montagna

Creating a Conservation Plan for Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs

Abstract

For the past thirty years, 92-year-old Vollis Simpson has been designing and building a collection of towering Whirligigs on his farm in Lucama, North Carolina. His art has attracted wide national attention, resulting in commissioned works for the City of Atlanta, the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, and other patrons. But the lion’s share of his artistic production, twenty-nine works, is found on his farm adjacent to the machine shop in which he still works. In order to preserve his art for future generations, the nearby City of Wilson, NC has launched an effort to conserve Simpson’s works and relocate them to a City park now being designed to receive them. The project presents a host of challenges. How does one preserve, in an outdoor environment, a complex collection of working sculptural machines that are constructed of a wide array of durable and ephemeral materials and systems that include truck transmissions, mild steel, wood, rubber, aluminum, highway reflectors, fastening systems both mechanical and welded, and an assortment of commercial spray paints?  A sense of urgency brought about by the artist’s age and the desire that the project aid in the creation of a local arts-and tourism-based economy has brought added challenges. Balancing many factors, project managers and consulting conservators have been developing a combination of low- and high-tech conservation treatments that will be both long-lasting in an outdoor environment, and maintainable by the community that has stepped forward to be the collection’s steward.

Transcripts

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 itself.

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.

Church:  Our third speaker in our little mini session is Ron Harvey the conservator at Tuckerbrook  Conservation, the  conservation company out of Lincolnville, Maine.  We’ve worked together on a number of different projects over the years, everything from dreadful caulk removal projects in Petersburg, Virginia, to wonderful projects like the one that  Ron’s going to tell you about today, so let’s hit it.

Harvey:     Thank you, could we have the lights down please? So Dennis had called me and asked four conservators  to come in and do a kabala looking at the Vollis Simpson pieces early on,  and whether I won or lost, I was the only one that showed up.  So this has become one of my most endearing, and challenging, projects in my 32 year career.  What the challenge is, is twofold;  one is that we’re looking at moving objects that normally would not be moved.  Many of you that have spoken today are talking about artifacts and buildings and structures and art objects that are not movable and are in their original place.  Well, we have the opportunity with this project to take them down and to move them.  In the process of moving them we can move them literally and figuratively, into the conservation facility, but also be able to move them to a point where they will be able to remain mechanically functional and aesthetically appropriate and  the aesthetically appropriate is the harder of the two issues in my opinion.

So, I was brought on site and we ended up going up into a cherry picker and running around looking at these objects and doing a quick site survey and going okay,  these are incredibly complex large functional objects with many, many layers of attachment including paint and pigment.  You see in the distance they become these linear drawings in air that are then activated by the wind.  Another view from the park that you won’t get to see in another year as I said, they are coming down and they will move into downtown Wilson.

So the closer I got the scarier it became.  You see sections of lost paint and rust which we expect,  because there was very little maintenance other than lubrication of functioning movable parts.  These attachments, Vollis certainly was a scavenger and used and picked materials and blended them in ways that are both unique, and in terms of conservation, challenging.  I want you to try to remember this horizontal element of the Simpson and how it’s rusted. Dennis showed you an earlier photograph that showed it with some level of pigment,  and Jeff had asked Vollis because I said, “Jeff, was this ever painted?” So he asked Vollis and Vollis said, “I never painted it, “but it had been painted.

So again, as Jeff was saying,  being a Yankee coming down and then  trying to immediately make some contact with Vollis to ask questions, in a couched but appropriate way, to understand what he wants in terms of the appearance of these.  He would, as Jeff said, would be very vague or he would say, “Well, when we talked about moving,”  he said,” If you chose one to move it will be wrong, and if I chose one to move it will be wrong.” So there you have it.  Again, we had this amazing facility and it really is a conservation dream to have as much space as we need close to the area where they will be relocated on Barnes Street.  Again, it started out as empty spaces.

There was a lot of publicity and this is a local paper, and I use this always as a touchstone because we talk about conservation.  Now, there’s an element of restoration and then this new concept for this group who’s involved with the Whirligig Project in Wilson, the Downtown Development Group, so you have conservation is kind of the new theme.  So again, it’s educating on both sides of the road and trying to cut a swath and  everyone’s saying, “But we need to do this quickly, we need to employ people, we need to move ahead, what can you do?  How can you make these work?”

So by moving these down into the Barnes Street facility, the photograph on your right shows the pieces sort of sitting on odd, extraneous material.  Not safe and  Danny Price is the lead guy in terms of the mechanical repairs.  Really is a great guy, 30 years working for Bridgestone, and  he developed mounting systems on wheels.  So not only are they safe,  so the theme of health and human safety runs throughout this concept of both conservation and preservation, plus the objects and the public.  Because this is going to go into a public space.  It’s transcending from being artist owned to public owned.  So Danny ended up creating these so pieces could be moved around and worked on and not be damaged as they are going through process.

Again, just an overview.  I want you to take note of the guy on the bicycle, the rust guy, basically.  Again, here’s that large horizontal section of the Simpson  in the conservation lab.  So my question was, “How do you want it to look?”  As a conservator I’m trained to deal with providing information and ideally treatments ,which are a long term stable,
re-treatable and fall within certainly  the code of ethics, but also with this project give us at least a 20 to 25 year lifespan before they have to be replaced.

So the question was, what time period do you want to interpret these and what should the surface look like?  In the back of my brain I’m saying to myself, I’ll ask these questions, but I’m not going to answer them because these are curatorial questions.   I pleaded in  many different routes to have more of a curatorial input.  If I’m going to go before the firing squad, I want company. No one’s laughing.

Again this fragility, these are bicycle tires that are probably 30-50% rust.  And there’s always the PR.  Whenever we would come on site and realize on this project, I would come on site for two days twice a year.  In those two days, Dennis and I are trying to get a weeks worth of work done, plus we would have PR things that we have to stop for, like these photographs.  We’d be interviewed.  There was a videographer that was going through this whole process, so, and then there were events in the evening.  It didn’t give us a lot of time to scheme.  Some of the folks working on this project.
So again, and before curatorial presence, we had Brendan, who was with the State Arts Council and  he was certainly willing to at least take temporary control of curation but knew also his limits. So whether we developed that as a strategy to sort of slow things down.  So we picked pieces which were more straight forward, complex yes, but more straightforward, in terms of these boxed units that are wood with attachments, reflector attachments and then many components of stainless steel.

My concern about the mounting system was not only the aesthetics of what they should look like but also the health and human safety aspects.  Again, early on, wanted someone who was a certified welder to review all the welds, because again, these are going into a public space and they become the liability for the city of Wilson.

And then we had painted surfaces and everything from intact to nonexistent, and the most challenging are these areas where we’ve got rust going underneath painted surfaces, original painted surfaces.  You’ve got areas where Vollis would paint with no primer, on either metal or aluminum, and literally the paint just flakes.  And then we’ve got the areas where it’s, as Dennis coined the phrase, the hand of Vollis, where it’s actually seen elements that he attached or went into with a brush or with a stick and paint, and complimented, or did fill in areas.  There’s pencil marks and the remains of the paint, and have a nice day.  On these attachments and elements that were moveable, like these hands and arms, the reflective surfaces but then going in and really adding more.  These are very, very, fragile surfaces, and so as a conservator, you know banging my head against the wall saying why?  Why me?

And again the variations, how do you want the paint to look?  What paint do you want? What level of interpretation?  We have the advantage of, through Jeff, of having Vollis be able to provide materials.  These are rollers, these little guys on the front that are part of a textile manufacturing equipment and  Vollis would stockpile and you can see piles of them in his shop, and so I was saying to Jeff, ” Get as many as you can, start stockpiling materials, because we need to think in terms of long term preservation and repair of these pieces.”

Again, what they were doing was replacing bearings, failed materials, missing, or worn shafts, and using metal that was about the same dimension and using bearings that were sealed to reduce the amount of lubrication needs and then where they needed to do lubrication, they would include little stop gaps, so they could go in and then lubricate.  Then the mechanical folks are going to come up with a system, in terms of maintenance, on the mechanical size for each of the whirligigs. So there is going to be a map and basically a large preservation and maintenance manual.

There’s some simple tests and cleaning surfaces, so that when I’m not there work still has to continue.  I’m not there very often, for four days out of the year last year. So looking at cleaning systems that were both nonthreatening either to the object or to the staff.  I did some coating treatments thinking alright, if you want these to look the way they are, let me look, start looking at systems that at least would maybe give us five year life expectancy.  I did some testing in terms of clear coats, if you wanted rust areas, there is clear coat systems that we can put over that would give us probably 10 to 15 years life expectancy, yet we could map them out so that again, it would appear like a rusted surface.  But without that curatorial input, I’m not making the call.  We did our six  month field test, which we all know is nothing, but at least it slowed down the process and again, keeping Vollis informed, and asking him, engaging him, and also respecting his wishes.

So what am I going to do in terms of conservation?  Tada!  My request, my need for curatorial input was solved when Brooke was brought into the project, bless her soul.  So here’s a person who had been curator at the Folk Art Museum in New York, now is at LACMA, has a strong and well grounded understanding of outsider art.  So we spent the day looking at the objects, both here and also at Vollis’, and looking at the complexity. We see areas where when you remove the reflectors you see original paint, so at least that helps us in terms of what it originally looked like, Brooke, should we repaint these? And then we have these other areas, which are hand of Vollis, where there’s these really minute, fragile details that have been applied and I’m scratching my head and saying well, I can do something that would probably give us a three year maintenance cycle, and that’s just not functional when you think of going forty feet in the air in a cherry picker, and you now have thirty of these.

So the bicycle was really, the sort of, turning point.  We discussed the possibility of what could be done, and I’m telling Brooke about the work I’ve been doing and the testing and she said what about replication? What about replicating those most fragile pieces, leaving those inside the museum which we’re creating, and putting replicas of those most fragile elements on the whirligigs, so they still have the function, that is, they move, they turn, they engage, they have the aesthetic surface, but we’re not putting these most fragile components in danger and that’s, so that’s one of the possible scenarios in terms of the final treatment for these.

And you can see by fragility, you get up close, and you see many of these pieces are, they are pooched, and they are really falling apart.  We’re talking about having to almost remake them in order to just stabilize them.  If they were replicated on these most fragile, most damaged surfaces, structures, we could then keep these, use these for interpretation in the museum, conserve them in the museum to a museum standard, have them live in the museum and give the people who are visiting the opportunity to see these up close and personal, but then still go into the park and see the functional objects.

So,  again this is that vertical element from the Simpson, where, yes we saw it had been painted, Vollis never painted it.  What did it look like and underneath, in a small area we found some original paint, which has been sampled and gone out for paint analysis.  So this, in fact, and again, with curatorial input, the idea was to move these to as functional and as complete as possible.

So, often we have to dance with the devil and  DuPont early on, had made an overture of donating $10,000 in product. I know DuPont’s products, and I know DuPont industry.  I wanted to look at a) what we were going to do in terms of what these surfaces should look like, and this was before Brooke came on board, and b) I want something we can, we know it’s long term stable, that those paints that are intact and not lifting, if we can put an isolating layer and then put an industrial coating over top of it, we would sample ahead of time, we would keep copious notes and documentation.   And so, the ability then, when products change, if DuPont, if we can engage DuPont in this as taking it on more seriously,  we’d have that exchange so that if there’s a failing product or if there’s a product that goes out of production, they can tell us what would be compatible and functional.

And so,  I’m just in the process, when we went down this last time to Wilson, DuPont had upped to $50,000 in product and I said, “Well, that’s great.”  The local DuPont industrial supplier came in, we talked, and he was saying, oh you know we can just do this and we walked him through the project,  and I explained to him what the conservation concerns are and he went,  “I see why you want somebody in the home office, I see why you want somebody in the technical side.”  I’m making those connections so that we can have this long term marriage with DuPont, and I know if they commit to the project, their products will be the best, they’ll engage, and they’re excited about this, and they can even come down and train people as to application.  And again, I’m reminding them that in terms of surface we don’t want spray coat. We don’t want things that look like automobiles.  It’s going to be hand applied because that’s how Vollis did a lot of the work on these older pieces. The new pieces, the replicated pieces, if that’s the side we go in, would go out, the failing pieces would be treated as museum objects as part of the exhibition.  I think it’s a great learning tool for the public.

So the idea, in terms of my overview of conservation, is maintenance, longevity, health and human safety, respecting the spirit  and the aesthetic essence and the mechanical elements of the whirligigs, but also the spirit and the soul of Vollis.  We’re fortunate we still have him, but at some point we won’t. Thank you.

Church:     We have time for just a question or two if anyone has any.
[Question unintelligible]

Jeff [Curie?]:     …road signs we got from [?] North Carolina about 20 years ago [?].  These are the cotton mill rollers, they’re from string mill, bearings, electroplated nickel silver.  He has hundreds of these. He’s got like a shipping container about half full of small electric motors, industrial light covers and this is one I got from him, I bought that  I love so. Great paint on this one, so I love how he did the eyes but…

[Question unintelligible]

Jeff:     Yeah, he’s hooked the motors up to some, and then he’s got one with a generator that powers some lights, which we didn’t realize because we didn’t see it, and people had shot the lights out over the years so…

Church:     Do we have any questions…we have time for one or two…yes, Nancy?
Nancy:     My question is did you say you’re only there two days a year?
Jeff:         I’m there…[?] Harvey:    Yeah, you’ve been taking me to dinner over the last several , and I said you need to propose to me and make this a long term relationship or stop dating.  We need more. What the next move is to go after a grant that’s specifically for conservation, so that we have funding and we don’t feel like we’re pulling money out of people’s pockets.  Because again, remember part of this, the thrust of this project was about employment. At this point, actually, I’m working at half my daily rate for them.  I told them I really love and I’m challenged by this project and I want to see if through.  They ‘re on board, so yes, more time.

[Question unintelligible] Jeff:  Yeah, we have to, like, there’s mechanical work that has to take place.  We change out bearings and fix the mechanicals on them plus some of these pieces are covered by like 2000 reflectors that are cut up road signs.  You have to take that off before you can do any surface treatments anyway.  On the pieces that we’re going to do the whole system of, so we have to get reflectors off which takes time.  All of the hardware…
[Question unintelligible] Jeff:     Yeah, the day to day of all and yeah, and we collect, we keep the collection and catalog everything that comes off.  We put reflectors on cardboard, label where they come from, how we got them off, we put them in a section we call the tobacco barn because we hang them all and keep that.   We take pictures, I’ve got thousands, we took five down the other day, and I’ve got about 1500 so…
Harvey:     And we also have two consultant conservators; Andrew Lins of the Philadelphia  Art Museum, who is probably the best in the United States in terms of coatings and corrosion, and Malcolm Collum who’s head of objects at the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian.  So I like, and the reason I really wanted to get Malcolm on board is, I think of these whirligigs as automobiles on sticks and for the public that’s an easy way to explain it, because you’re talking about surface coatings and you’re talking about mechanics, and then you’re talking about up off the ground, in the air so,  Malcolm comes out of functional objects and understands this dicey walk between museum conservation and functional objects conservation.
Church:     Last question.
[Question unintelligible] Harvey:     The only outside people are Dennis and I…
Jeff:      Yeah, but we’ve got other local people too.  Yeah, Brendan Greaves is at the  State Arts Council and he has a background in art. He is also a folklorist as well, and then Juan Logan is at UNC Chapel Hill and he’s an artist and has worked in metal as well over the years.   You want to talk to that any more…what now?

[Question unintelligible] Jeff:     Well, everybody in the shop is doing mechanical work.  We have a workforce of about fifteen  folks that some are volunteers, some are paid full-time, some are paid part-time,  we have retirees, we have people who have been out of work for a long time, we’re just at the point now where we’re going to get people in education through the community college system,  so they’re getting on the job training as well as going to do some classroom work.  We also have some folks who have 35 years of experience, who are just doing this part time, and they’re helping to educate folks in Wilson. So it’s kind of a diverse project.  We’ve got a lot of pieces and parts and it’s running five days a week, eight hours a day, actually ten hours a day.
Harvey:     I didn’t actually say who, sort of why,  I was involved.  I’m actually with the National Park Service in the Philadelphia office.  I run a monument care program and so my entire participation has been footed by my office.  This is the National Park Service supporting the effort.   So, but I think by, and almost entirely, it’s really a local effort.  And a lot of people working on the projects are very much guys like Vollis.  I mean, they, in some cases, the guys in the shop, they think like Vollis, they see mechanical things like Vollis does, so that’s, I think, one of the real strengths of the project as well to be able to tap into, to people who see things in a very intuitive, see engineering in a very intuitive way.
Church:    Alright, thank you.  They’ll be around the rest of the conference for more questions…

Speakers Biography

Dennis Montagna, National Park Service, Monument Research and Preservation Program, Philadelphia

Dennis Montagna directs the National Park Service’s Monument Research & Preservation Program.  Based at the Park Service’s Philadelphia Region Office, the program provides comprehensive assistance in the interpretation and care of historic cemeteries, outdoor sculpture and public monuments to managers of National Park sites and to other constituents nationwide.

Dennis holds a BA degree in Studio Art from Florida State University, a Master’s degree in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D from the University of Delaware. He participated in the 1989 ICCROM Architectural Conservation Course in Rome, Italy with grants from the Kress and Getty Foundations, and in subsequent years has returned to Rome as a course instructor.  He is a former chair of the American Institute for Conservation’s Architecture Specialty Group and served as an advisor to the national Save Outdoor Sculpture! Project.

Jefferson Currie, Anthropologist, Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project

Vollis Simpson on the left with Jefferson Currie on the right

Jefferson Currie serves as Documentation, Collections and Surface Treatment Manager for the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park Project in Wilson, North Carolina.  A native of North Carolina, Jefferson is in love with the people and communities of his home state. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke with a BA in American Indian Studies, and has finished the coursework for a Master of Arts in Folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He is currently completing his thesis on the interconnectedness of American Indian identity and the sheetrocking (drywall) occupation within the Lumbee community of North Carolina. For twelve years, Jefferson worked in the curation and education sections of the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, where he co-coordinated the American Indian Heritage Celebration and curated numerous exhibits, including, North Carolina Legends and Powwow: Heartbeat of a People as well as the museum’s historic garden. Jefferson has also worked throughout North Carolina–with former textile mill workers in Cleveland County, with artists in Bladen County, and with the Lumbee Indian Arts and Culture Survey in Robeson and adjoining counties.

Ron Harvey, Senior Conservator, Tuckerbrook Conservation LLC

Ronald S. Harvey received a B.A. in art from Monmouth University and an M.F.A. in Art (sculpture) from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee followed by a formal apprenticeship in conservation at the Milwaukee Public Museum.   Advanced training was completed as a conservator at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. After working as assistant and then senior conservator at the Milwaukee Public Museum, he relocated to Maine and opened a private practice in 1990. Tuckerbrook Conservation LLC serves the conservation needs for both private and public collections throughout the United States, Mexico and Ethiopia.

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2 Responses to Creating a Conservation Plan for Vollis Simpson’s Whirligigs

  1. John Lutz says:

    I am wondering how the relocation of Vollis Simpson’s whilrligigs is progressing. Can any be seen operating yet? Where in Wilson will they be? I have been to his Lucama farm and met this delightful man, would like to see how things are going now. Hope he (and you) are well. John Lutz

  2. John H says:

    The new park will be located on Goldsboro St between South St and Hines St in Downtown Wilson. The whirligigs are currently undergoing maintenance and repair at the Whirligig Conservation Building on Barnes St in Wilson, and that shop can be toured Monday – Friday during regular business hours! Please stop in!

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