Featured Artist

Russel Snow: Whirligigs—Imagination in Motion

Russel Snow.  Photo by Ned Castle.


Only the creator’s mechanical ability limits the complexity of the whirligig. American yards, gardens, and porches have seen an endless variety of human and animal figures jolted into motion by gusts of wind, and any task involving bodily bending or movement of arms or legs has proven ripe for depiction.

Regardless of the prestige of the whirligig’s figures—soldiers, policemen, judges, and preachers—people have viewed their abrupt and exaggerated movements as humorous. Russell Snow of Waterbury, a seventh-generation Vermonter and retired engineer, makes whirligigs that emphasize movement. His pieces are often mechanically complicated, with several perfectly formed figures performing a variety of actions. He’s a stickler for historical accuracy, even down to the correct number of buttons on a sailor’s uniform, and his whirligigs are precisely painted and pristinely finished.

Asked about the most complicated aspect of his whirligigs, Snow immediately answered, “Getting the mechanics right so they actually operate.” He cites a particularly ambitious piece with a circus as the theme. Animals and vehicles on a revolving tray pass through a tent, which also serves as the wind vane.

“There are two or three things happening here,” he went on. “Not only does the circus go through the tent, but the tent acts as the vane to keep the propeller into the wind to keep the circus moving. There are probably six different ways to design the same thing, but this is what I came up with.”

Snow enjoys mechanical complexity. “I like double propellers that double- rotate,” he said about another favorite feature. “When they get going in the wind, they’re really amazing to see. You can have a lot of fun building whirligigs. I guess that’s the bottom line. If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t do it.”

All text © Firelands Media Group LLC. From Gregory LeFever, “Spinning Smiles from the Wind,” Early American Life, October 2012.

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