June 8, 2017 at 8:00 AM
by David Montgomery
The wind is up in Wilson, N.C. Giant pinwheels and propellers start spinning atop tall and spindly kinetic sculptures called whirligigs, which have been erected on a village green being developed into Whirligig Park. The rotating wheels drive chains, belts and shafts that, in turn, set in motion whimsical characters and shapes. Little bicycle riders and unicyclists pedal and wave, helicopters hover, birds flap their wings, fighter planes change course.
The fantastic contraptions have been fashioned from the discard pile of American civilization. A freshly painted blue fan, 19 feet in diameter, spins majestically thanks to the graceful repurposing of the rear axle of a truck, while another big pinwheel is adorned with 96 shiny metal milkshake cups. Vollis Simpson, the junkyard artist who built these figures, worked from a palette that also included scrap metal, bicycle wheels, attic ventilators, hubcaps, brake disks, side-view mirrors, light fixtures and highway signs. His day job was moving houses and hauling heavy machinery. He never threw away anything because, as he used to say, "Next week you'll need it."
Long before the National Endowment for the Arts, or anybody else, thought his "windmills," as he called them, were fit for a city park, he erected them on his family's land out in the country. The effect was so surreal that the grove became a destination that teenage joyriders dubbed Acid Park.
"Back when I started this mess you never heard of this word 'art,' " Simpson, who died in 2013 at 94, once said. "I'm just an old country boy." So he was stunned, and a bit tickled, when his whirligigs were called upon to help save Wilson's ailing downtown.
Much as a whirligig is a meditation on cause and effect, on the way consequence builds upon consequence, Whirligig Park fits within a larger web of chain reactions rippling through the nation. As the Trump administration proposes next fiscal year to eliminate four pots of federal funding for culture — the National Endowment for the Arts ($148 million last year), the National Endowment for the Humanities ($148 million), the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($445 million) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services ($230 million) — communities across the country are left to ponder what difference that would make.
The total money at stake at the four agencies — about $970 million — is a drop in the $3.9 trillion federal budget. That's a data point that can be argued both ways: Arts advocates say the cuts would scarcely reduce the deficit but would cripple the nation's cultural life. Budget hawks say the multibillion-dollar culture industry is so well-endowed by philanthropic elites that the comparatively minuscule federal contribution would not be missed.
I found myself paging through descriptions of hundreds of federal grants in search of a few projects to go see for myself. Culture agencies are as politically shrewd as the Pentagon at sowing taxpayer dollars in seemingly every congressional district, and I was amazed at the breadth of aspirations. In the end, I decided to find out what difference it makes to bring pottery- and printmaking to the desert towns of West Texas; why it matters to discuss Sophocles and Upton Sinclair in the basement of a health clinic in Boston; and whether such endeavors would be possible without someone writing checks in Washington.
The whirligigs of Wilson seemed promising as well. They don't just provide a handy metaphor about the connectedness of things; they're also an example of one impact of culture funding: the economic development potential of art. Whirligigs, it turns out, can be job creators.
Whirligig Park thrums with a whispery, metallic clatter, and the whirligigs radiate energy outward. It animates the tourists who have discovered Wilson, a city of 50,000 that once claimed to be the largest tobacco market in the world. After the tobacco warehouses closed, Wilson spent decades searching for a new way to generate vitality downtown, but to little effect.
The National Endowment for the Arts was an early believer in the civic power of Simpson's creations. The project received a little more than $200,000 in 2010 from individual donors, who would go on to contribute $800,000 more by 2017. Then, starting in 2011, the NEA gave grants totaling $469,000 to help with the design of the park and the restoration and installation of the whirligigs. As Wilson officials see it, the federal money helped leverage more than $7 million from other public and private sources — such as ArtPlace America and the Kohler Foundation — to finish the park. In addition, about $35 million in private real estate investment has come to downtown Wilson since the whirligig project launched in 2010. City officials credit most of that capitalistic activity to the whirligigs themselves, and to a broader arts-inflected renaissance suffusing Wilson as a result.
With so much money flowing, it's natural to question whether it all could have happened without the fraction provided by the NEA. But folks in Wilson say it's hard to conjure now the uncertainty that existed at the beginning of the project, before the NEA provided one of the first grants. Plenty of residents considered it foolhardy to put so much faith in Simpson's rusty old windmills. "I thought it was junk," says Donald Evans, a City Council member who has been converted into a booster of the project.
The NEA provided not just cash, but cachet, and cachet could be redeemed for more cash, making everyone in town a believer. "It put us on the map with the prestigious [private] foundations in the country," says Henry Walston, president of a family auto-parts business, who championed the project from the beginning. "Here was this little bitty town in eastern North Carolina that all these people started taking notice of. ... Vollis Simpson's whirligigs could be Wilson's Eiffel Tower."
Landscaped where a tobacco warehouse burned down, the park doesn't formally open until the fall. More of the eventual 30 whirligigs are to be installed, a farmers market pavilion is being finished, a performance stage is under construction. On a Monday evening in April, a small crowd of residents gathers for open-mic night and craft beer in a brewery that recently opened in a formerly derelict historical building across the street from the park. "Without that Whirligig Park, we certainly would not be there having a brewery," says Barbara Conklin, who conceived of 217 Brew Works with her husband, Tom Curran. The brewery expects to expand from six to 10 jobs in the coming months.
Around the corner, in a conservation center in a former auto-parts building, eight metalworkers and carpenters, led by artist Juan Logan, are employed to restore and preserve Simpson's whirligigs. On another street facing the park, a construction crew frames up 90 market-rate apartments in a vast former tobacco warehouse. The $12 million project, set to open next year, is called Whirligig Station, designed for a growing number interested in moving downtown from the outskirts and from as far as Raleigh-Durham, an hour away. "That project could not happen without the Whirligig Park," says Dave McCormack, president of Waukeshaw Development in Petersburg, Va., which is developing the space. "It's going to create more energy downtown and let people who are prospective tenants see it as a destination place, a cool place to hang out, drink beer, go to restaurants and get people thinking about living downtown."
To be sure, local businesses and individuals chipped in, but to complete the work, "we don't have those types of resources locally," says Kimberly Van Dyk, city planning and community revitalization director. "These types of federal resources help bridge the divide between the have and have-not communities."
There's money in parts of West Texas when the price of oil is high, but it hasn't been for a while, judging from the two dozen or so idle rigs disappearing in the rearview mirrors of a curious caravan that just set out from Odessa. The principal vehicle is a pickup truck hauling a 16-foot trailer. The trailer carries the names of sponsors, including a local propane company and a small logo devised in Washington: "Art Works. arts.gov."
At the wheel is a printmaker named Mario Kiran. He and potter Christopher Stanley, both art professors at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, have turned themselves into arts riders on the Texas plains, roaming hundreds of miles from Lubbock to the Mexico border, covering 17 counties dotted with rural communities where resources are scarce, even when the oil is flowing. The pair used to invite art classes from public schools to visit the university art department for arts enrichment, until school principals began saying they lacked the budgets to provide buses. So about five years ago, an elementary school invited Kiran to come there. When he arrived, the teacher had no art supplies. Kiran ended up running out to a convenience store for glue and flour, from which he improvised clay with the students. "I was furious," says Kiran, who grew up in India. "I vented to Chris: 'This is horrible. This is the United States; this is not India.' Chris said, 'Welcome to America.' "
Iowa-born Stanley had just had his own shocking experience, visiting a school where the art program had recently been cut. That's when the idea for Pots-n-Prints was born.
"Chris said, 'Let's do a grant, let's try the NEA,' " Kiran recalls. "I said, 'We're in Odessa. There's no way we're going to get any change from the NEA.' "
The trailer rolls into Big Spring, population 29,000, former home of a long-shuttered Air Force base. An arts festival is getting underway on two downtown blocks. Usually the trailer visits schools or Boys & Girls Clubs, reaching thousands of children a year. This is the second time a group of young artists has put on a festival in Big Spring, and both times the trailer has been a featured attraction. The rear doors open and equipment starts emerging, winched and ferried down a ramp. First come the pottery wheels — 10 of them — and hundreds of pounds of clay. Then the silk-screen press with its flash dryer, and boxes of T-shirts. Next the 1,200-pound etching press.
A small crowd gathers to watch the process, waiting for this clown car of infinite art supplies to yield its biggest surprise: a full-size raku kiln, capable of firing up to 2,000 degrees. Long lines form for a chance at the wheels and the two presses. Children and parents tackle the wet clay side by side. Stanley walks among the wheels, pushing his big fingers into the clay, demonstrating how to open a well, how to pinch the sides.
Epiphanies start popping all over.
"I made something!" Loralai Heffle, 7, says with a kind of shock at the slightly lopsided bowl turning in front of her.
The rise and fall and rise of the creations is reflected in the faces of the creators.
"One little piece of clay and her face just lit up," says Josh Morales, father of Joslyn, 4.
"How do you know when it's done?" Shandon Farr, 7, asks Stanley.
"That's one of the biggest questions in all of art," Stanley says. He prevents another child's lump from spinning out of control before adding: "You just feel it."
Greg and Rebecca Medina are making pots alongside their daughter, Madison, 8. "Growing up around here, we've never even seen anything like this," says Greg, a school bus driver. "You think about where these kids are going to get this experience. They're not going to get it in school."
"We're trying to teach Madison that there's a whole world outside of Big Spring, Texas," says Rebecca, a math teacher.
Sitting at her wheel in a black dress with a black bow in her hair, Madison holds up her creation. "It's a cup," she says. "I'll probably plant a flower or a seed in it."
As impressed as I am, I wonder how much difference this festival, this relatively brief chance to make pots and prints, will have in the lives of these families. But there's also a larger dynamic going on here. The festival and the trailer are part of a fragile arts ecosystem that is sending out tendrils, like a desert flower.
One hundred ten miles west of Big Spring is Kermit, population 6,400. The high school is one of two dozen schools the trailer travels to each year. These visits amount to a kind of art technology transfer, where the professors impart techniques and teaching tips that the teachers can use again.
The trailer visits "just tripled the amount of knowledge I'm able to get to my kids," says Tonia Tidwell, art teacher at Kermit High School. She used those experiences to make the case to the administration to buy 18 pottery wheels. "For some of our students, Odessa-Midland may be the biggest town they go to in their lives," Tidwell says. "My kids, that one day a year [when the trailer visits] they get as much knowledge, if not more, than I can offer them in a whole semester. I know that sounds like a stretch. When Chris and Mario leave, the students are on overload. I'm on overload."
Then, too, the university art students who volunteer on the trailer tell me the experience inspires them to return to their communities and find ways to push art outside the classroom and the studio.
Cost to the taxpayers: two NEA grants of $15,000 apiece. Each was matched with money and in-kind support from other sources, including the Odessa Council for the Arts & Humanities, the University of Texas and propane supplier Fuel Mark Inc. The funding also affords a small honorarium to artists-in-residence who come for a week to teach the college students and then venture out on the trailer.
Dusk and the desert chill begin to enfold Big Spring as Stanley starts packing up the wheels. "It would be nice to go to Congress and show them what we do," he says. "I know for four years we've been able to give a gift back to these communities that was funded by the federal government, and nobody else was doing it. ... Show me where this is bad."
I didn't have to go far to find people ready to do just that. At the Heritage Foundation on Capitol Hill, a conservative think tank that advocates for limited government and free enterprise, I met Romina Boccia, one of Heritage's leading thinkers on fiscal and economic policy, and Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow with a special interest in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Boccia started by citing a Giving USA report that estimates that annual private charitable donations to "arts/culture/humanities" total $17 billion. Compared with such a sum, she argues that the relatively small federal contribution is unnecessary. "It's not even a rounding error," she says. She doesn't believe the folks in Wilson and Odessa who say the federal share is an essential component. "It's easy once you have the grant to say, you know, this is what did it," she says. "Maybe you have to work a little harder in the absence of it."
As I described Whirligig Park and the mobile trailer, she deftly turned the very strength of the projects against their need for federal support: "For all of these projects that are really worthy and good, there are lots of generous people around ... especially those kinds of things where you can easily see how this would be great PR" for a corporate donor.
It occurred to me, though, that PR possibilities become most apparent once a project is running — after the feds have come in with seed money. Given how little federal money is involved — just 92 cents per capita supports the NEA and NEH — in those cases where federal support might do some good, is there any harm in that?
Boccia and Gonzalez maintain there is. Consider Wilson, where the whirligig boosters say the NEA lent credibility, enabling further fundraising. Boccia and Gonzalez consider that a distortion of philanthropic decision-making. An NEA grant becomes a seal of approval, tempting some donors not to judge a project on its merits for themselves, they say. And the lack of an NEA grant becomes a barrier for other projects to get private funding.
"Only a limited number of organizations are going to be able to get those NEA grants," Boccia says. "They have a leg up now, because they can say we have this quality-assurance certificate from the federal government."
I had gone to Heritage thinking the debate over funding was simply a dispute over the proper role of government, but now I could see there was more to it. I hoped Newt Gingrich, with his penchant for broad strokes, would frame the issues in sharp relief, but when I called him, he only added more nuance.
Back in the 1990s, as speaker of the House of Representatives, he thundered for an end to federal arts funding. This was after two controversial photography exhibits in 1989 were partially funded by the NEA. Gingrich said at the time that rich Hollywood types could fund the NEA if they wanted to.
Now I found him somewhat mellowed on the subject. The difference between the 1990s and now, he says, is back then there was "an all-out drive to balance the budget." Today, "in the general world of government deficits, where an amazing number of truly dumb things are funded, it's a little hard to make the case that these shouldn't be funded. ... There are a lot of historians who have written great American histories based on NEH grants."
He remains an avowed foe of the public broadcasting corporation. As for the other culture-funding agencies, "I think it would be great fun for Trump to go out and find an intellectual conservative of the first rank to head up these institutions and then watch the left respond," he says. Or, he suggests, why not open a window of several years during which the federal government would match private donations to create true endowments for culture, then let them run on investment returns with no more federal support?
"The great virtue of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities ought to be that they provide seed money for scholars and artists, and they provide opportunities for young people to be exposed to the arts," he says.
I told him that sounded a lot like what is happening in Wilson and Odessa. "I think it's an interesting test case," he says of the whirligigs. "But let's stick with the Texas example." He pointed out that the University of Texas system has one of the largest endowments in the nation. Could it alone have funded the mobile trailer?
"It would be impossible to argue that they accomplish no good," Gingrich says of the culture agencies. "But I think it's legitimate to say, Could we at least look at, one, to what degree is there a [liberal] bias, and, two, how much of this gets absorbed by petty bureaucracies, all of whom will testify that they're really important?"
"My argument is not for or against the institutions per se," he continues. "I think of all the things we do, it's pretty hard to argue that they're among the most harmful. My argument is with the entire academic class, of which they are a subset. The degree to which we're now sucked into a sort of only-liberalism-counts kind of worldview is what worries me."
As it happened, my next visit was to watch a couple of members of the liberal academic class in action.
"What do you see here?" asks the Harvard historian, moonlighting in a basement classroom of the Codman Square Health Center, in a working-class section of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. He keeps asking simple questions like that, which make the answers seem not so obvious, which reminds the students — nearly all middle-aged black women — of Socrates, whom they read last semester. They are looking at photographs taken by the crusading journalist Jacob Riis more than a century ago, pictures of immigrants crammed into tenements in Lower Manhattan.
"Why do you think Riis took this photograph?" Timothy Patrick McCarthy, the professor, continues, selecting another image.
The students inventory what they see: a seated woman holding a swaddled child on her lap, her eyes cast upward. Beside her is a ladder, and she's surrounded by buckets, barrels, bundles, a man's hat on the wall.
"It looks like slavery," says a student.
"He's certainly relating this to that," McCarthy says, then adds: "Those of you who are religious, have you ever seen an image like this?"
"Madonna and child?" asks student Phyllis James.
"Madonna and child!" says McCarthy.
An image of Michelangelo's "Pieta" flashes on the screen.
"This could easily be read as a sacred representation, where the hat is not literally a man, or a man's hat; it's God," McCarthy continues. "It's the thing that's unseen. He captures her looking up, directly at what looks like the hat. Could she be praying? Is this a ladder to heaven? Is this upward mobility in terms of class? ... She isn't just an immigrant woman with a baby. She also represents something."
He proceeds to his larger point: "That's what we do, that's what this course is about, when we're thinking about language. Things operate in both the literal and the metaphorical."
With that McCarthy has handed over another of what his co-professor Jack Cheng calls "the keys to the culture" to people who never had access to the full set that comes with a good college education. In a STEM-obsessed society, the Clemente Course in the Humanities, as these sessions are known, takes an unabashed Great Books approach to education. They were devised two decades ago by the late social critic Earl Shorris, whose central insight was that what keeps the underclass down is being forced to focus so much on the daily struggle that there's no room for civic engagement. The way to make room, said Shorris, is instruction in the humanities.
Now there are 31 Clemente Courses given around the country. The free Dorchester course, one of five in Massachusetts, receives about $50,000, or half its annual cost including in-kind services, from Mass Humanities. The state humanities council, in turn, gets half its funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. "Without the NEH money, we could not continue all of them," says David Tebaldi, executive director of Mass Humanities. "There's nothing that we do that has the profound impact on individuals that the Clemente Course does."
Among the requirements for admission, the students cannot have graduated from college and must come from households getting by on less than what is considered a living wage in the Boston area, or about $13.42 an hour for a single person. In two semesters, meeting twice a week, they take classes in moral philosophy, literature, American history, art history and writing.
They read Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Nietzsche; Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Junot Diaz; they survey art from Mesopotamia through Picasso, Pollock and Warhol. The work is demanding, and dropout rates can be as high as 50 percent, but those who graduate receive six credits from Bard College in New York state that can be transferred to other institutions. A consultant's study requested by private funders and paid for with a foundation grant found that, 18 months after graduation, two-thirds of Massachusetts Clemente graduates had taken college classes, and many reported volunteering for political campaigns for the first time and paying more attention to public affairs.
After class, I ask Phyllis James, the student who made the Madonna connection, why she was taking the class. At 50, she says she was "maxed out" in her work as an administrative assistant for the state courts, unless she got more education. "I always wanted to finish my degree, but you get involved with work, family. Time flies," she says. "This is encouraging me and giving me a doorway to go the next step to achieve my goals." Like the woman in Riis's photo, she sees the Clemente Course as her ladder up.
Carl Chandler, 68, an alumnus, told me about being the keynote speaker at his Clemente graduation a few years ago. During his speech he explained to the audience that graduation day was the anniversary of when he was forced into a homeless shelter for a brief time, his lowest moment. Taking the course was part of his comeback. "I'm always going to be poor," he said to me, "but that's no excuse not to be informed, to speak up, to try and better myself. Clemente helps you get on that path and stay on that path. It helps you think more and think better."
Waldo Aguasvivas, 28, graduated in 2013. He had dropped out of high school and got his GED as he was beginning the Clemente Course. "Courses change people's lives," he says. "It changed my view on college, that I wanted more, that I wanted to know more. You can talk to anybody, and that feels good, not to be lost in the classroom or not to be lost when you're talking to somebody and they're talking about Aristotle, and you don't even know who that is because you haven't given yourself the time or just you never came across it."
Aguasvivas carried his six Clemente credits to Roxbury Community College, then enrolled at Suffolk University. He's on track to graduate next semester with a degree in applied legal studies. Next for him is law school, he says. "I never even knew what college credits were. Look at me now."
It was easy to see how the whirligigs have made Wilson a place of perpetual motion. Mike Simpson, one of Vollis's three children, showed me where his father originally displayed my favorite of his masterpieces. We were out at the workshop that the elder Simpson built on the family's land about 10 miles from town. He never worked from drawings. The only evidence of planning were a few smudged hieroglyphics etched in chalk on the concrete wall and floor of the shop. Taken together, the whirligigs are like a cubist diary of a life that began in 1919 and saw the 21st century, with deeply personal references to his family, his World War II service and his life of hard work. "He would say, 'That's my life out there,' " Mike Simpson says.
"We always say if the wind is up, he's smiling," says Carol Kyles, Simpson's daughter.
The masterpiece shows a wagon being pulled by horses or mules. I love it not just because it's a beautiful behemoth, but because it's the most ingenious expression of ripple effects and the conservation of energy. The turning of a 24-foot-diameter fan sets in motion a series of reactions including the waving of the driver's hand and the wiggling of the horses' ears. It weighs 10,000 pounds, but the heavy pieces rotate almost daintily because Simpson knew how to impose perfect balance.
Now it's in the conservation center in Wilson, being restored for installation in the park. In a frame on the wall of the center is a pair of stenciled shapes the size of extra-large gardening gloves. The title above the frame says, "Hands of Vollis Simpson." All art, scholarship and cultural expression begins with an individual's singular vision — the genius and the hands of the creator. What happens next depends on other forces.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.
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