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Vollis Simpson, whirligig master, dies at 94

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Where others saw trash, Vollis Simpson saw whimsical, wind-powered whirligigs, creations with hundreds of moving parts that turned and twirled.

The whirligigs were made from recycled heating and air conditioning systems and reflector material Simpson patiently cut into thousands of tiny pieces that made the works shine when lights hit them in the dark. His work was featured in museums, backyards, dentist offices and the 1996 Olympics.

"I got caught with a lot of material, and I worked it out," Simpson said in 2010.

Simpson, 94, died Friday, Beth Liles of Joyner's Funeral Home said.

Folklorist Jefferson Currie, who began working with Simpson about three years ago to record stories about the whirligigs and their creator, said Simpson's daughter told him he died at his home in Lucama, N.C., about 40 miles east of Raleigh.

Simpson had a heart valve replacement in February and had returned home recently, Currie said.

Some of Simpson's whirligigs stand 50 feet tall and are made from recycled HVAC parts, including motor fans and cotton spindles. They can weigh as much 3 tons.

He built the contraptions near his machine shop in Lucama. More than 30 of them were on display there until last year, when an effort to restore them began. That process is about halfway complete, with a few of the larger whirligigs still in the pasture, waiting to be moved.

The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is scheduled to open in November in Wilson, about 10 miles from his home.

The whirligigs are known as outsider art, works created by someone without formal arts training.

Simpson didn't have an engineering degree, either, but that didn't stop him from constructing a motorcycle with a bicycle and a stolen motor when he was an Air Force staff sergeant on Saipan during World War II.

Simpson said last summer he was conflicted about the park in his honor. He said he knew he could no longer care for his creations if they stayed at home with him, but he felt lonely without them. "I just hope I live to see it," he said of the park.

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