American Visionary Art Museum’s 55-foot-tall whirligig comes down for restoration

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The 55-foot-tall giant whirligig stands outside of the American Visionary Art Museum. The whirligig was taken down and disassembled this week to be restored, repainted and reinstalled by this spring. Photo credit: Jack Hoffberger/American Visionary Art Museum.

One of the best-known features of Baltimore’s skyline has disappeared, but it will be back.

The 55-foot-tall giant whirligig at the American Visionary Art Museum was taken down from its support post and disassembled this week so it could be restored and repainted for continued display at the Inner Harbor attraction.


Created in North Carolina by the late Vollis Simpson, the piece weighs 3 tons and is officially called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s the largest of several works of art that have been on permanent view outside the museum, which recently marked its 26th anniversary.

As part of her effort to get the museum in top condition before she retires next spring, founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger has been working to conserve the outdoor sculptures that have been exposed to the elements and need repair.

Others that have already received attention include Andrew Logan’s Cosmic Galaxy Egg; Ben Wilson’s meditation chapel, and Robert Benson’s blinged out “Universal Tree of Life” near the museum’s entrance. This spring, the museum will “regild” Adam Kurtzman’s “Giant Golden Hand” sculpture, which appears to hold up a 32-foot movie screen on the west side of the museum’s Jim Rouse Visionary Center.

“I feel like, before I’m gone as director, what I’m doing is like the trip in The Wizard of Oz to the Emerald City – getting everything buffed up and in the best shape possible,” Hoffberger said as she watched the whirligig get dismantled.

The 55-foot-tall Giant Whirligig at the American Visionary Art Museum was taken down and disassembled this week to be restored, repainted and reinstalled by this spring. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Once the conservation work is complete, she said, the whirligig “will look as fresh as the day Vollis and his two sons installed it.”

Located at 800 Key Highway, the museum has been designated by Congress as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art,” which it defines as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training,” that arise from “an innate personal vision that revels in the creative act itself.”

Because of its size and position several stories in the air, the whirligig had to be lowered and moved off site so conservators could work on it. The Maryland State Arts Council last year awarded $50,000 to help cover the estimated $80,000 cost, and the museum is raising the rest. The conservation work will be carried out in two locations, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum in Wilson, N.C., and Barrett & Sons Coatings in Elkridge, Md.

In place since 1995, the whirligig is a wind-powered kinetic sculpture that’s made from scoops, cups, wheels, fans and other components that catch the wind, causing the sculpture to move.

Vollis Simpson, who built the whirligig, incorporated several painted figures into the piece, including this cat, as well as stars, a duck, a fish, a man on a bicycle and an angel. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Simpson (1919-2013), was a self-taught engineer who designed and built equipment for moving houses and operated a repair shop in rural Lucama, N.C. He made the whirligig from cut-up street signs, recycled bicycle wheels, car parts and stainless steel milkshake canisters, among other repurposed objects. He also incorporated a number of painted figures, including cats, stars, a duck, a fish, a man on a bicycle and an angel. One of the best places to view it is from the museum’s third level restaurant terrace, which is named after Simpson and his wife, Jean.

According to the museum, Simpson began making whirligigs to commemorate family occasions, from a son’s college graduation to the loss of a pet, and his creations soon filled a large field on one corner of his brother’s roadside farm. Tourists began coming to see them and Simpson started getting commissions for other locations. Four of his whirligigs were featured in downtown Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. When AVAM opened in 1995, he was the second person to walk through its doors, after matchstick artist Gerald Hawkes.

“Vollis was a master” at understanding machines and wind power, Hoffberger said. “He was brilliant. He could figure out anything. He was MacGyver on steroids.”

After years of exposure to sun and rain, many of the metal pieces of AVAM’s whirligig have started to rust, and the colors have become less vibrant. The Vollis Simpson park and museum has a lab where conservators can bring the pieces back to their original appearance.

The repair effort began on Monday, when two workers in a cherry picker unbolted the sculpture from its support post so it could be lowered by crane to the plaza below. Once it was down, workers took it apart and documented and tagged all the pieces.

The smaller elements have been sent to the conservation facility in North Carolina. The long horizontal “lattice boom” will be restored in Elkridge by Barrett & Sons, which is also repairing the vertical post. Hoffberger, whose last day will be April 3, said she hopes to have the sculpture reassembled and whirling again this spring.

This week, crews lowered the 55-foot-tall Giant Whirligig at the American Visionary Art Museum to be disassembled. It is expected to be restored, repainted and reinstalled by this spring. Photo by Ed Gunts.

There have been suggestions that some of the outdoor works might do better indoors, where they could be in a secure, climate-controlled setting. The Cosmic Egg was damaged several years ago when a man smashed it with a baseball bat. The act of vandalism was caught on a security camera after the bars in south Baltimore let out on a Saturday night, but no one was ever arrested. Someone punched it again last year, requiring more repairs.

Hoffberger has resisted the idea of moving art indoors. From the beginning, she said, she wanted to have sculptures on display outside the museum as well as inside, so passersby can see works of art even if they aren’t going inside the museum. “I wanted to give a gift to people who come by at all hours of the day and night, to make it a Wonderland in the center of the city,” she said.

Although the whirligig was recognized in one poll as “Baltimore’s most beloved public sculpture,” it wasn’t always welcomed by everyone. When plans for the museum were first presented to residents of nearby Federal Hill, Hoffberger recalled, one man in the audience stood up to protest having a whirligig in the area, shouting “We don’t want your whirlies and your twirlies in our neighborhood!” After it was installed, she said, the man contacted her to say he changed his mind and it was his “favorite public work of art ever.” To his credit, she said, “he let me know how much he loved it.”



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