Photo: Robbie Caponetto
Vollis Simpson, Age 93
Lucama, North Carolina; Folk artist
Vollis Simpson’s enormous hands weld together pieces of discarded steel and farm equipment. With these hands, he’s built a farm full of towering whirligigs—artistic sculptures with pinwheels and propellers powered only by wind. Made popular in Appalachia, Vollis’ whirligigs are among the biggest in the country, some towering 50 feet. With the slightest gust, the sculptures come to life, moving metal mules and airplanes into whirling motion, turning a country road into an experimental sculpture gallery.
Vollis, a World War II veteran and former farmer and machinist, has been lauded by art critics worldwide; his work has been chosen as the symbol of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. As a folk art pioneer, he’s transformed the ordinary machines of Southern life into extraordinary works of art, recognized by The New York Times and documented by PBS. “I don’t know if I’m an artist,” says Vollis. “I just know I wake up every day and have to do something with my hands.”
Heroes juror Gerri Combs says, “Vollis embodies the creative spirit of our region. He’s someone who doesn’t see himself as an artist but is driven to create and share creations made from what others might call junk.”
People travel from all over the world to see his sculptures, all built less than a mile from the farm on which he was born. And he’s given his blessing for 32 of his works to be restored and preserved. The Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park will open in downtown Wilson early next year, ensuring that Vollis’ artwork, grounded in the rural tradition in which he was raised, lives on for generations to come.
Runner-Up: Price Walden, Age 20
Oxford, Mississippi; Student and composer
As an Ole Miss junior, Price Walden wrote an opera—about collard greens. Tapped by an instructor and handed a stack of published poems about the beloved vegetable, Price composed Leaves of Greens: A Southern Oratorio in 3 Parts. The opera celebrates the shared experience of family gathered around a Sunday supper, juxtaposing our humble staple with high art. The work debuted at last fall’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. Imagine voices bellowing “God gave man imagination/crisp golden cornbread/and/early morning dew-touched Collard greens.”
Ben Owen III, Age 43
Seagrove, North Carolina; Potter
Ben, a sixth-generation potter, continues his family’s legacy of making beautiful yet practical stoneware pottery for which the area is known.
Jeff Polish, Age 40
Chapel Hill/Durham, North Carolina; The Monti
Jeff created The Monti, an oral narrative project, to preserve the art of storytelling. Established and emerging raconteurs share their tales without the aid of notes.
Betty McDaniel, Age 65
Pickens, South Carolina; Young Appalachian Musicians
Betty is keeping mountain culture alive through affordable after-school programs led by Appalachian musicians who teach such instruments as the claw-hammer banjo.