Q&A: M.D. Kirkpatrick, Creator of Whirly Gigs

M.D. Kirkpatrick's show and sale, "Whirly Gigs," will open Friday, Nov. 8 at 6 p.m.-11 p.m. at Pioneer House art gallery (413 S. Gay St.) and the 30 hand-painted whirly gigs, along with some painted signs, will be on display through the holidays.

How long have you been making whirly gigs?

Probably about 15 years, something like that. I just always made them as presents for friends and family; I didn't start selling them until about a year and a half ago.

Why did you start making them?

I was really broke one year at Christmas, and wanted a really good present for my wife, Red Hickey. I made her a Bill Monroe whirly gig—she really loves Bill Monroe.

Why did you start selling them?

They were just presents, but everybody kept saying, "You should sell these!" so I decided to try it.

Are they beautiful?

I think so. Some people might agree, I don't know. They are influenced by when I was a kid, so some are scary.

What's scary about when you were a kid?

Reading monster comic books and stuff like that, watching horror movies—the old ones like Dracula and Frankenstein, not like those today.

Do you ever have to turn down a whirly gig request?

Sometimes. I can't just do anything. I want to make it right, so you've got to be able to picture it in your mind, to visualize it. Sometimes I have to say no. Sometimes it just takes a long time. Someone asks, and then months later, boom! An idea pops into your head.

Do they have to hang?

They're sort of freestanding. They usually mount on a small rod or pole, on a deck maybe. For them to move, that's one of the things you kind of have to experiment with, seeing where the wind will catch them.

What's your favorite that you've done?

I do flying eyeballs, those are pretty cool. But my favorite is the one I'm working on at the time.

How long does it take?

About five-seven days. What it is, I don't like to work on more than two at a time at the most, so that includes a lot of paint-drying time. I can make several at one time if I'm pinched for time, but I don't like to. Even though I do duplicates, none of them are exactly alike.

What's your most popular duplicate?

The Day of the Dead skull seems pretty popular—Hank Williams, Dolly Parton. I've sold several Dolly Partons here recently.

Do you have any woodworking or art education?

I grew up around woodworking. My dad is a real good woodworker; he did fine clock cabinets, but I never did anything like that. And I went to UT and tried to study art, but I'm not a good student so that didn't work.

What about these signs you make?

I just make signs, too. I can make anybody a sign, but I just make 'em up, just like the whirly gigs. I've done a series of "visit" signs. "Visit Historic Vestal," "Visit Norris." I usually put some sort of adjective in there to try to describe the place in one word. One I did, I made a visit Knoxville sign: "Visit Knoxville that Scruffy Little City—Madeleine Rogero, mayor." She's a friend of ours, we love her.

Do you ever see your pieces in unexpected places?

No, pretty much everybody that has them I know. There was a girl in New York City who ordered a Dolly Parton and she's got it sitting in a windowsill with a statue of Buddha, which I thought was pretty cool.

Where do your materials come from?

Well, I used to work at a lumber yard up until last year, and I had scrap wood hanging around everywhere—I'm kind of a wood hoarder. It's the same with paint. I can use house paint or go to Jerry's Artarama; I just use whatever I can get.

Is your South Knoxville location an influence?

Absolutely. I grew up in South Knoxville, and I always liked when people had homemade art in their yard or along the side of the road—wherever.

Why is "whirly gig" two words?

There's different ways of spelling it. I spell it different than most people. I figure since I make ‘em, I can spell it how I want to.

For more information about the show: pioneer-house.com