Whirligigs: Folk art that doesn’t just blow in the wind

A whirligig is any object that spins or whirls. Collectibles often include pinwheels, weathervanes, and gee-haw whammy diddles.

by Larry LeMasters     Sep 13, 2017 @ 10:23


Whirligig

Introduction to Whirligigs

The word whirligig derives from two Middle English words: “whirlen” (to whirl) and “gigg” (top), or literally “to whirl a top,” and the first usage of the word appears around 1440 CE.

While several types can be found, collectors dream about catching the figural, wind-driven, and folk art whirligigs.

Folk Art

Originating as wind-powered kinetic yard decorations, these have large wings on relatively small bodies. The reason being, increasing the blade area also increases the surface area, allowing the wind to collide with the whirligig, causing it to whirl faster, reaching its terminal speed in less time and maintaining that speed for longer times.

The two blade, non-mechanical model is the most common type of folk art, but more complicated ones do exist. The only limit is the builder’s imagination.

This History

The origin of folk art whirligigs is unknown. We do know that the mechanics date back to ancient Sumerian times, roughly 1700 BCE. The first known representation dates to medieval(European) tapestries. These tapestries show children playing with a whirligig consisting of a hobbyhorse on one end of a stick and four blade propellers at the other end.

Even George Washington collected and bought whirligis from farmers and artists at Mt. Vernon when he returned home from the Revolutionary War.

19th century handmade wooden figural whirligig19th century handmade wooden figural whirligig, depicting two men sawing lumber. This folk art whirligig is valued at $360.

During the 20th century, production of figural whirligigs centered on folk artists of the southern Appalachian region. Many of these artists produced and sold figural whirligigs from scrap wood during the Great Depression.

Figural whirligigs are now recognized as a form of national folk, art and, as such, some museums have extensive collections of them. With recognition as American folk art, prices for figural whirligigs has escalated, causing some collectors to reach deep into their pockets to obtain authentic, Appalachian whirligigs for their collections.

century Abraham Lincoln whirligig

20th century Abraham Lincoln whirligig with his hands holding two paddles (air wings). This whimsical piece of folk art was offered on eBay for only $15.

Famous Folk Artists

Figural whirligigs are now recognized as a form of national folk, art and, as such, some museums have extensive collections of them. With recognition as American folk art, prices for figural whirligigs has escalated, causing some collectors to reach deep into their pockets to obtain authentic, Appalachian whirligigs for their collections.

Few of the earliest whirligigs were “signed” pieces, so some collectors seek the work of particular “known” folk artists. Whirligigs from folk artist Reuben Aaron Miller are highly sought after as representative of American 20 th century folk art. But some collectors believe the value and collect-ability of folk art whirligigs has been too uneven, causing the market to be a Seller’s market where greed pushes the market as much as collecting or art does.

Other famous folk artists who made whirligigs include Lester Gay of Fountain, North Carolina, who made whirligigs from bicycle rims; Edith and Gene Lawrence of Plantersville, Alabama, who made and sold whirligigs from their home (Gene became locally known as the “Whirligig Man”); and Elmer Preston of South Hadley, Massachusetts, who made traditional figural whirligigs such as “Farmer Cutting Wood.”

The Price of Whirligigs is rising

In 1998, a 19 th century Uncle Sam whirligig sold at Skinner Galleries for $12,650. Other figural whirligigs that have sold at auction in the last 20 years include a 19 th century polychrome carved pine cone and copper band figural whirligig that sold for $10,925 and an early 20 th century “Bike Rider” figural whirligig, made of painted wood and sheet metal, that sold for $3,450. Vollis Simpson, of Lucama, North Carolina, is, arguably, considered the best-known, modern whirligig maker. Simpson constructed a “whirligig farm” on his land, displaying 30 – 40 whirligigs at any given time. In 2012, Simpson was named the Arts and Culture winner of Southern Living’s Heroes of the New South.

Wilson, North Carolina, holds an annual Whirligig Festival at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park & Museum in Wilson. In June 2013, Vollis Simpson’s whirligigs were designated as the official state folk art of North Carolina.

Symbolically, figural whirligigs continue to whirl after the builder’s life ends, symbolizing the fact that life goes on and that, in the final analysis, art is valued more than the artist.

As long as mankind collects folk art, there will be a demand for figural whirligigs since they represent the solitary folk artists, whittling a tree limb into a functional and decorative piece of whimsy—a whirligig.

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