A top Baltimore’s Federal Hill sits a three-ton amalgam of milk-shake canisters, air-filter caps, bicycle wheels and odd metal. To some it’s scrap, to others, art. “It looks like the Bride of Jerusalem just landed,” says Rebecca A. Hoffberger, director of the American Museum of Visionary Art, which commissioned the piece. “It’s like nothing Spielberg could ever imagine.”
Its source is Vollis Simpson, 79, a farmer and house mover turned folk artist from tiny Lucama, N.C. “They call me an artist,” says Simpson. “So I guess I am.” Simpson first discovered his passion for tinkering while stationed in Saipan during World War II. When the Japanese bombed his base, he collected parts from wrecked planes and built a wind-powered washing machine.
In 1950, three years after marrying his wife, Jean, 71, he opened a repair shop. “I’ve built everything you see around here,” says Simpson, alluding to the two dozen giant kinetic sculptures—from windmills to an eight-foot-tall guitarist who strums and taps his foot—that stand in a nearby pasture. The works draw tourists—some buy smaller sculptures for $100 to $300—and, sadly, vandals (the artist currently faces charges in an incident involving birdshot and two injured teens).
Much of his joy, he says, comes from figuring out the mechanics for a new piece and finding just the right parts from the mountains of salvage he has assembled. “You don’t just go out there, hokey-spokey, and pick up everything you need,” he says. “But I know I’ve got it—if I can find it.”