The Visionary Art Museum will truly be things of beauty One man's junk: A new Baltimore museum salutes creative works by artists outside of the mainstream, where whirligig creator Vollis Simpson has made magic for years.

September 23, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

The dictionary says a whirligig is a child's toy, but a Vollis Simpson whirligig is a toy for everyone to enjoy. The one this North Carolina artist installed earlier this week at the American Visionary Art Museum reaches 55 feet high, is 36 feet long and has hundreds of moving parts.

It has windmills with aluminum blades that flash in the sun. It has a tower of bicycle wheels that rotate in the slightest breath of air. It has a duck with rotating wings. It has a unicycler, an angel and an airplane -- each of which moves. And all this is aboard a 6,000-pound superstructure so carefully balanced atop its 40-foot pole that it also rotates gently in the breeze.

It took Mr. Simpson a year to build the whirligig, and a day and a half to install it as the first work to go on view at the museum, which is scheduled to open at the southeast corner of the Inner Harbor on Nov. 24. The museum, designated by Congress as the country's official national museum dedicated to visionary art, today will hold a Founders Day celebration for major donors (not open to the public) -- the first of several special events to be held prior to the official opening.

Visionary, or outsider, art is defined as the work of self-taught artists outside the mainstream, and Vollis Simpson fits the description. Now 76, he started creating giant whirligigs on land near his home at Lucama, N.C., a decade ago. He has made 75 of different sizes since then.

A laconic man who's a doer rather than a talker, Mr. Simpson was asked why he started making whirligigs. "Well, I learned a lot," he said. And stopped there. You have to assume he probably meant that in his primary business of house moving, rigging and wrecking, he learned a lot about equipment and machinery, and finally decided to put his knowledge to creative use.

"He can look at a pile of scrap steel and see stuff," said his son, Barnie, who accompanied his father to Baltimore. "When he started, maybe people wondered if he was off his rocker. But he's known in the community, and people always knew he was creative. Some people still have trouble seeing it as art, but it's become a tourist attraction so they accept it."

A tourist attraction indeed. People from all over the country, and other countries, have visited Lucama to see Vollis Simpson's whirligigs.

As for art, they've been included in critic and curator Roger Manley's book on North Carolina outsider art. And in 1988 Mr. Simpson was invited to erect a whirligig at the High Museum in Atlanta; it was there during the Democratic National Convention. He's also been invited to create four whirligigs for an interstate leading to Atlanta for next year's Olympics. "But I don't know what I'm going to do about that," he said. "I'll be 77 years old in January."

Aside from some at his home, Simpson has never made a whirligig as big as the one in Baltimore. "I've sold miniature pieces to people all over, but this is the only place that's got one that big," said the artist, looking up at his just-finished work, which was moving slowly in a light breeze. "It's a little tight right now, but it'll go to town when it loosens up. On a windy day it'll have a ball."

And it's a good bet museum-goers will have a ball watching it -- from ground level or up close from the museum's third-floor balcony (when it opens).

The American Visionary Art Museum has been the dream of its president and creator, Baltimorean Rebecca Hoffberger, for a decade. Working out of an at-home office, Ms. Hoffberger, 42, in the last five years has raised $6.7 million of the $7 million needed to get the museum built and open -- including $1.3 million in state bond issues, $1.8 million from the Zanvyl Krieger Fund, and $500,000 from Anita and Gordon Roddick, founders of the Body Shop International, a worldwide toiletries chain.

The city donated two buildings on Key Highway at the foot of Federal Hill, a former paint company building and a former whiskey warehouse. Castro/Swanston Associates architects have turned the space into a 42,000-square-foot complex. It includes a 35,000-square-foot main building with six galleries, offices, a shop and a restaurant on three levels; a 3,400-square-foot sculpture barn; and a 4,000-square-foot wildflower and sculpture garden.

The museum already has a permanent collection of about 4,000 works of art, but according to Ms. Hoffberger there's no plan to show the permanent collection as an entity. Instead, works from the permanent collection will be shown with works from elsewhere in the context of a series of temporary, themed exhibitions.

The opening exhibit is "Tree of Life," a 400-work show curated by Mr. Manley that features works on the theme of trees and nature. Future show themes will include flight and motion, visions of the 21st century, and love.

The museum will not have a full-time in-house curator, at least at first, Ms. Hoffberger says. There will be guest curators for each show. "We are going to have a lean core group of people to operate the museum at first," she said. "We'll have a staff of about 12 full-time employees."

Among the coming events between now and the opening is a Nov. 11 gala evening fund-raiser with tickets selling for up to $1,000. "We want to raise enough to open debt-free," said Ms. Hoffberger.

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