Two small figures, brightly painted and wearing helmets, pumped up and down on opposite ends of a small railroad car. The movements of the men were powered by the calloused forefinger of my father rotating a tin propeller. I had never seen him build such a thing. I was hooked immediately.

My retired seventy five year old father, with his matted silver hair, took the pipe out of his mouth and explained that this creation was called a “whirligig”. He added that the two men were “gandy dancers”, an old term for railroad workers. Entranced by these little men in motion, I asked my father where he had learned to build this sort of thing. He replied that whirligigs were common in Depression-era southwestern Missouri, near the Ozarks, where he had grown up.

Over the following months, he built several more whirligigs, each with its own propeller-driven vision. He wasn’t much interested in showing these pieces to anyone else except maybe to the occasional chance visitor to his workshop in the garage. In making these pieces he seemed to be reviewing and reworking something in himself. He was having fun as well.

Since World War II, my father had been a machinist and tool and die maker, as was my older brother. My brother evolved into an inventor of fascinating and complex machines that did whatever his customers wanted. As a child, I had followed my father and brother around, imitating them as best I could. By the time I was about twelve years old, all of what I had learned from them went into hibernation for the next forty years.

Academics came easily to me, so I fled the manual trades and built a better foundation for my wobbly self-esteem on the academic strength of straight A’s. Eventually, I became a physician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I thought that through these accomplishments at last I would achieve a standing superior to that of my father and brother, whom I secretly envied for their mechanical skills.

For the past two decades, in my off hours, I have pursued the visual arts. I have taken many art classes at junior and state colleges: drawing, life drawing, painting, composition, printmaking, art history, photography and others. I have had no professional aspirations in the arts (well, maybe a few fleeting grandiose fantasies). In short, my art is a “hobby.” (I love this dorky noun from my childhood.) Others today might prefer to call my work, using loftier words, a “creative pursuit.”

I also have come to appreciate American folk art. Increasingly, I value the simple child-like content and form, naive and untutored, with its unsophisticated charm. I still can stare for hours at the works of Henry Darger, Howard Finster, James Castle and others. I have collected many authentic Mexican “ex-votos” (hand-painted votive scenes on tin). From Oaxaca, I have a collection of faded (from their very bright original colors), hand-carved, wooden animal musicians, Every so often, I happen onto another weathered propeller- driven piece, like “Man Chopping Wood,” in a forgotten corner of someone’s yard.

Wind-driven whirligigs go back at least to the U.S. Colonial era, as weather vanes evolved to include rotating “wings” (one or two bladed propellers) on one or both sides. By the late nineteenth century whirligigs had become a popular art form. Exposure and weathering have led to very low survival of wind-driven whirligigs from this era. During the Great Depression whirligig production again surged, probably driven by the need for cash. For at least the last twenty five years, wind-driven whirligigs have been well recognized as a sub-category of American folk art.

My father died suddenly at age eighty five (in his workshop, of course). I soon took as many of his handworn tools as I could cram into my own beginner’s workshop, although I had no idea how or if I would ever use them. Several weeks after my father’s death, I was taken with an unexpected and strong compulsion to build whirligigs. I found a few thin “how to” books with simple building plans. I used what little I could glean from these books about materials, mechanics, and techniques. However, I immediately crashed into a conceptual wall which was much more daunting to me than any technical obstacle. Suddenly I felt that the usual whirligig themes were “boring.” More than that, I HATED the superficial, cutesy themes of the vast majority of whirligigs. They all seemed to me banal or corny--you know, the kicking cow or the chicken pecking corn, or the bird with rotating wings. Something had changed in me, but what? Why did I feel compelled to build whirligigs when I couldn’t stand their themes?

Over time I had developed a more sophisticated, trained “art eye.” This eye had allowed me to see and appreciate the untrained talent evident in American folk art. However, it also meant that I, myself, never could return fully to that naive state in order to create traditional folk art.

I had become an experienced psychoanalyst who labored all day in the unsentimental backwaters of the mind, a nasty, mean, and selfish territory. As an aging professional helper, I also had become skeptical and disillusioned. These experiences and feelings had fed my devaluation of the simple innocence in most whirligig themes. As I came to see more clearly the defensive qualities of that devaluation, it soon evaporated. I still had an unchanged love of the form and medium of the whirligig, kinetic and wind-driven. Finally I understood that somehow I had to use my “art eye” and my psychoanalytic experience as new influences on this old folk whirligig tradition.

At last it occurred to me, seemingly obvious: I didn’t have to do traditional content! I could do any damned themes I wanted to! I could do angry, depressing, or scary content. I could attempt conflicted, contradictory and multi-layered meanings. I wanted to do what I felt to be good art, what my midwestern relatives would call “a real conversation piece.” Then, just maybe, the moving parts and propellers, whimsical and brightly colored, would “work” by their contrast to my unflattering and unsentimental themes. Perhaps the naive simplicity of this innocent form would allow the viewer to look beyond the obvious, and to half-consciously sense deeper themes, in spite of their defenses. I wanted the pieces to make the viewer laugh while engaging with or puzzling over them.

I simply HAD to make these whirligigs. I came to see that I still had many dormant mechanical and wood-working skills learned long ago from my father and brother. My obsession to make these whirligigs drove me to invest the hundreds of hours necessary to reawaken these skills and to create the pieces shown in this web site.

In my decade-long interaction with my whirligigs I have learned a few things about myself. I hope that also I may have made a worthy addition to this American folk art genre.

These whirligigs may end up in strange and anonymous hands after I’m gone. Nevertheless, these pieces still speak strongly to me and about me, just as my father’s gandy dancers did for him more than fifty years ago.

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Thomas L. Gelker (1914-1999)

Thomas L. Gelker (1914 - 1999)