An unusual spin, but elevating art Popular sculpture: The 3-ton whirligig above the American Visionary Arts Museum offers gazers a breezy distraction from their daily grind.

April 16, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

It's the biggest toy in Baltimore, and a good eye is all you need to play.

Rising 55 feet on a candy-striped pole where Covington Street meets Key Highway is a 3-ton whirligig: a tower of intricate magnificence tricked out with bicycle wheels, oil filters, a duck with whirring wings, the figure of a man pumping a unicycle, aluminum blades that mirror the sun's sparkle, stainless steel milkshake cups, an airplane, an angel and more doohickeys than one paragraph can hold.

Planted in a public courtyard behind the American Visionary Arts Museum, it doesn't seem to do much more than spin and swivel in the wind.

Yet it has the power to turn wheels in the imagination like almost nothing else in the city.

"It's a kind of a wing-ding Ferris wheel," said Keith Hill, Jr., a Southern High School student playing basketball across from the sculpture on a recent sunny day.

Even the wing-ding's shadow, projected against the side of the museum when the sun begins to drop, is captivating.

"It makes you do something," said John Lau, an architect visiting Baltimore from Chicago. "It makes you think."

Of what?

Most folks say it conjures memories of carnivals and pinwheels and a strong but undefined joy. Specific responses are as varied as the person looking at it.

"It brings the buildings alive; it brings the light alive," said Ben Wilson, a sculptor who has found himself alongside the giant gizmo for months while building an outside wedding altar for the museum.

"When I'm working in the garden, it's like someone is looking at me," he said. "It's like a person I've gotten to know -- sometimes it goes really slow and quiet, and other times it's fast and banging."

The whirligig is visible from the slopes of Federal Hill and some of the houses atop it, from cars on Key Highway, high-rise condos on the South Baltimore waterfront, the balcony of the museum -- where you can almost reach out and touch it -- and harbor boats plying just the right course.

"There's so much to look at, you have to just stand there awhile," said Betty Haynie, a Baltimore Zoo keeper. "It's childlike."

It was installed with a crane in September of 1995, and people who stumble upon it for the first time usually react the way Ms. Haynie did: "Whoa! What is that?"

School buses drop off students at the Visionary Arts Museum park on Covington Street; and when the children move toward the museum doors, their necks crane to the sky.

You simply cannot pass by this thing without looking, and if you are close enough, you can hear it hum, creak, clank and whir.

"It's cool -- all the spinners up on top," said Jarrid Miller, a 13-year-old student from McDonogh School on a field trip last week.

One of Jarrid's classmates wanted to know if the contraption was called "Vollis Simpson," a name painted in red on a white metal plate that hangs from the cross beam. Next to it hangs a green sign that says: "Lucama."

They are the names of the whirligig's 77-year-old creator and his hometown in North Carolina, where more than two dozen homemade whirlies and windmills catch the breeze in an old mule pasture behind his home.

On the day it was installed, Mr. Simpson said: "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."

Mr. Simpson built Baltimore's whirligig at the request of Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the Visionary Arts Museum.

"It's going to be lit at night and because of the mirrors, it will send out light," said Mrs. Hoffberger.

You would have to be some kind of full-time Scrooge to find fault with something that makes people happy for free, but Mrs. Hoffberger remembers a meeting with neighbors about three years ago when a man shouted: "We don't want your whirlies and twirlies in our neighborhood."

Compromises were worked out to keep the museum roof free of TTC sculpture, and no one seems to mind a whirly-twirly in the neighborhood now.

"To have something that whimsical right in your midst so beautiful and fantastic" is a gift of living in the city, something you can't get in the suburbs, said Richard Leitch, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association.

Alisa Anderson, a South Baltimore artist who sews for theaters and costume shops, has strolled by Vollis Simpson's obsession many, many times.

Staring up at it through sunglasses the other day, she tried to describe how the sculpture made her feel. The wind blew, the crossbeam swayed on greased bearings, and the whole thing came alive.

Ms. Anderson never did find the right words, but she walked down the road smiling.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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