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Art creator Vollis Simpson, known for his whirligigs, dies at 94

Jim R. Bounds / AP

Vollis Simpson, a builder of whirligigs, is seen in Lucama, N.C., in June 2010. Whirligigs are wind-driven creations that could stand as high as 50 feet.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Vollis Simpson, a self-taught North Carolina artist famed for his whimsical, wind-powered whirligigs, has died. He was 94. 

Beth Liles of Joyner's Funeral Home confirmed the death Saturday. Simpson's wife, Jean Simpson, was quoted by the Wilson Daily Times as saying that her husband died Friday in his sleep at his home in the town of Lucama.

Jean Simpson also was quoted by the paper as saying that her husband had received a successful heart valve replacement in February but experienced complications. 

Simpson became known for his whirligigs, wind-driven creations that stand as high as 50 feet and are constructed from recycled parts including motor fans and cotton spindles. 

Jim R. Bounds / AP

Giant whirligigs designed by Vollis Simpson are shown in Lucama, N.C. in June 2010.

He built the contraptions on land near his machine shop in Lucama, about 35 miles east of Raleigh. More than 30 of them were on display there until last year, when an effort to restore them began. The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park is scheduled to open in November in Wilson, about 50 miles east of Raleigh. 

People from across the world visited Simpson at his shop, where he would happily sit and talk with them.

"What Vollis was doing mechanically, creatively and artistically is unparalleled," Folklorist Jefferson Currie, who has worked on the renovation, said Saturday. "He worked on a scale that was a lot larger than anyone else. And even in that scale, he had a lot of intricacy. ... It's hard to get your ahead around how one man could create all of this." 

Simpson's creations have also captured national attention, with buyers including a shopping center in Albuquerque, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Four of them were also put on display at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. 

Last month, the North Carolina House approved a measure making whirligigs the state's official folk art.

The whirligigs weigh as much as 3 tons and have hundreds of moving parts. They're folk art or what's also known as outsider art, works created by someone without formal arts training. 

Neither did Simpson have a formal engineering degree. 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. He also built tow trucks for moving houses. 

In an interview last summer, Simpson told The Associated Press 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.