Ten years ago, when I was traveling in the Ozark Mountains, I bought a whirligig at a craft shop by the side of the road in Arkansas. It was the figure of a bluebird that paddled like a swimmer in the wind and rattled like the dickens in our garden until its wings gave out during its second or third blustery winter (no doubt to the relief of the neighbors).
Now the bluebird is perched quietly on a rafter in the garage, and I'm looking for a suitable replacement. The possibilities, it turns out, are endless.
No one really knows much about the history of whirligigs, but they have been around for a long time. Wind toys, as they are sometimes called, ingeniously rigged with wood, wire and what have you, have been made by generations of tinkerers and carvers. Experts suggest that the idea may have traveled from China, arriving in Europe in the 12th century. Whirligigs probably reached America with the first Colonists -- if they weren't here to begin with.
One of the most celebrated early-American whirligigs was a valiant soldier "with a sword in each hand," holding a position "on the pinnacle of the barn" in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," published in 1817.
Hundreds of fabulously fanciful whirligigs are in major public and private collections of folk art. At the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, a 19th-century Uncle Sam rides a bicycle endlessly into the wind, trailing a magnificent carved flag.
Whirligig figures crank cars, wash clothes, chop wood, row boats, swim, ride brooms and play cards. According to one story, a minister in the Tennessee backwoods made whirligigs -- a whole field of them -- depicting every sin confessed to by members of his congregation.
We seldom know who made the early examples, but whirligigs are "powerful sculptural expressions," says Stacy Hollander, curator of the Museum of American Folk Art.
They were mostly homemade for private entertainment, but they were "responsive to fashion trends, to the aesthetics of the period, the political situation," she says.
"There is no rule that governs them," Hollander adds. "People were wide open to the American experience and expressed it in their art. People let their imaginations go wild."
The wind has always fascinated gardeners, and these tremendously animated figures should have a place in almost any garden into which the wind can find its way. The proliferation of flags, banners and wind chimes on the market is evidence that we love to give a breeze something to play with, although the wind can find toys of its own: Picture columbines dancing in a summer wind, with mighty trees swaying and creaking all around.
Instructions on how to make whirligigs are in any number of books in public libraries. But use your own ideas. Don't be afraid to go a little wild. Modern artists have fun creating chorus lines, tropical fish, baseball teams and big bands. The batter swings, and so does the band.
There's quite a market in these fancy wind machines, and prices run anywhere from $20 to $1,500.
Ron Smith, an artist in Falmouth, Mass., on Cape Cod, made his first whirligigs as gifts.
"I started realizing their storytelling ability," Smith says. Whirligigs are "little funny statements about life. I like the fact that they are driven by nature, sort of like we all are."
Smith also teaches classes on whirligig-making, intense one-week courses he calls "Whirligigs: Simple Actions, Complex Stories." Before a recent workshop, he wrote to his students and "asked them to bring humor and irreverence," he says.
The appeal was successful:
Students produced carefully crafted personal expressions that "throw a curve into existing ideas," Smith says. One student made a whirligig that can toss a salad.
Smith's current project is a whirligig that actually pats his dog while he's away.
"That machine is about caring for him," Smith says, "and giving myself a sense of well-being.
"It all begins with wind power, but the sky's the limit."
Whirligigs turn up in flea markets, art galleries, antiques and garden shops, and sometimes on the street when neighborhood whirligig artists display their works for sale. Here is a list of museums and galleries that exhibit or sell whirligigs, artists who make them, and information about an annual whirligig festival: The collection of antique whirligigs at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York is among the best in the country: Museum of American Folk Art, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 10023; (212) 595-9533.
"Wind in My Hair" is an exhibition of whirligigs and wind toys at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, through April 21. The whirligigs in the show are from the 1950s to the present. The museum is at 800 Key Highway; the phone is (410) 244-1900.