Weather vanes and whirlygigs can be art; holding up a wet finger isn't

Contrivances provide fun beyond function

'Spinning Cube,' Yvonne Bobo

"Spinning Cube," Yvonne Bobo

James P. Leonard, “Rattlesnake Whirligig.”

Photo by unknown

James P. Leonard, “Rattlesnake Whirligig.”

'Spotted Dog,' Vollis Simpson

"Spotted Dog," Vollis Simpson

Installation, main gallery, in front, 'Blacksmith Weathervane,' Herbert Weigl Sr.

Installation, main gallery, in front, "Blacksmith Weathervane," Herbert Weigl Sr.

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Through June 3 at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive. Call 901-774-6380, or go to metalmuseum.org.

Asking which came first, the weather vane or the whirligig, is as futile as asking the old riddle, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Both weather vane and whirligig are animated by the wind, though weather vane pointers are horizontal and fulfill a practical purpose, while the blades of the whirligig can be horizontal or vertical and serve no function but momentary pleasure.

These issues, of metaphysical importance only — hence inconsequential — are not answered by the exhibition “When Weather Moves Metal: Whirligigs and Weathervanes,” through June 9 at the National Ornamental Metal Museum.

This show is happily content to offer a selection of primarily contemporary contrivances for pure aesthetic enjoyment mostly in the museum’s upstairs gallery, but with six placed outdoors so they can spin and whirl as the breezes dictate. As museum director Clarissa Hussong said, the exhibition is “colorful and fun.”

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan said. All you have to do is step outside, wet a finger and hold it in the air; the side of your finger that gets cold indicates whence the wind comes. That’s no fun, though. More entertaining is a glance at a weather vane, its fish or rooster or stag rotating to indicate, usually with a fanciful arrow, in which direction the wind is blowing.

As for whirligigs, they’re close cousins of windmills, once a fixture on every farm in America, used to draw up water from deep wells, and to the whirly toys kids hold up to the wind, and even to wind generators, those giant, sleek modernistic devices designed to harness the power of the wind to create electricity. While those objects — windmills and wind generators — fill a purpose, the actual whirligig, often fashioned in a workshop or garage and sometimes even elevated to the form of folk art, operates at the aesthetic level of pure delight.

“When Weather Moves Metal: Whirligigs and Weathervanes” is not a large show, nor does it deal extensively with the history of weather vanes and whirligigs, though there’s an example from colonial Williamsburg perched high outside, doing its duty. In fact, the combination of function and artfulness is one of the major themes of the exhibition. There was no particular reason for Jim Cooper to fashion his two handsome weather vanes to look like a catfish and a brook trout, but he did, and they’re all the more effective for that bit of whimsy.

Men who spent their lives around machines and intricate objects seem to gravitate to the making of weather vanes and whirligigs. Herbert Weigl Sr. was the product of an ironworking family in Austin, Texas; his monumental “Ironsmith Weathervane” pays homage to the family business, which lasted from 1922 to 1976. James P. Leonard was a periscope repairman in the Navy; he used that technical knowledge, as well as self-taught metalworking skills, to fashion such pieces as the beautiful “Rattlesnake Whirligig.” Vollis Simpson, now 93, retired from a career as a machinist to become one of the best-known self-taught whirligig makers in America, working from his yard in Wilson, N.C., now the home of the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. The exhibition includes four of his ingenious pieces.

Works by local artist Yvonne Bobo, well-known here for her extensive public-art résumé, and L. Brent Kington, a pioneer in the revival of blacksmithing in the 1960s and ’70s — and the teacher of Jim Wallace, founder and former director of the Metal Museum — reveal that weather vanes and whirligigs are not all about tradition and folk roots. Their pieces in this show are sleek, modern and inventive, but no less tied to the most essential element — the wind.

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