Artist and musician Lonnie Holley has lived a life so rich in metaphor that, after learning something of his biography, one finds oneself wondering: Can it possibly all be true? Or is Holley just better at seeing the symbolism, the universal connections, that lie behind the thin yet often impenetrable veil of the everyday?
Given that Holley creates his art out of what other people throw away, the latter is the safer bet.
Holley is an African-American artist who grew up in pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama. He was kidnapped from his mother — who in her lifetime had 27 children, though some did not survive — as a toddler, then sold for a bottle of whiskey when he was four years old to a woman who ran a juke joint. It was here that he began collecting other people's refuse. Left on his own much of the time, he'd crawl through a sewer pipe, through literal waste, to wander around the state fairgrounds and a nearby drive-in, picking up and saving bits and pieces of discarded stuff that would become the precursor to his found object assemblages.
Talking about this time, Holley emphasizes it as one of his most important formative experiences. "I lived by the state fairgrounds, and the state fairgrounds is where everybody would bring their number one quality items, to win ribbons," he says. "And guess what Lonnie Bradley Holley would do? I would slip in through the sewage pipes and I'd walk around, sometimes all day and half the night, looking at material. Looking. I was brainylizing it, putting all these images in my brain. It became so wonderful for me. That's where all of this came from ... It's the sewer pipe that I crawled in, muddied up my knees, muddied up my hands. I had to get muddy first. I had to be in human waste first. Then I got to the realm of education. Isn't that what life is all about?"
Several years later, while still living at the juke joint, he was hit by a car and dragged underneath the fender for blocks by a driver who claimed that he hadn't noticed the child's body; he was in a coma for three and a half months. As Leslie Umberger writes in her essay "In Memory of the Blood," which is part of the Halsey Institute-created monograph Something to Take My Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley, "Holley didn't play, know fun, feel safe, or experience much in the way of familial love; he cut his teeth on the harsh reality of poverty and the poetry of trash."
Then, as if that weren't hardship enough, around age 12 he was sent to a notoriously abusive reformatory school, Mt. Meigs Industrial School for Negro Children, where African-American children were subjected to horrific beatings, sexual abuse, slave labor, and cruelty. He was rescued from there by his grandmother after a couple of nightmarish years, and reunited with his mother, siblings, and extended family in Birmingham. His grandmother visited the dump every morning to scavenge items that the family could sell at the flea market, and Holley would accompany her, furthering his appreciation of the treasures to be found among garbage. His grandmother dug graves, too, and Holley helped her with that as well.
In his 20s, Holley cooked at Disney World and did some farm work in the Midwest, but returned to Birmingham in 1971. It was in that decade, when a tragic house fire took the lives of two of his sister's children, that Holley made his first concerted efforts at making art. He was in a deep depression, having come back from working at Disney World to see with new eyes just how desperately poor his mother and the rest of his family were — and in fact, it was that poverty, in which he too had lived for most of his life, that prompted his art-making. The family was unable to afford gravestones, so Holley carved two himself out of sandstone. He describes the experience to author and College of Charleston professor Theodore Rosengarten in the essay "Blackbirds," which is part of the Something to Take My Place catalog: "I took my stone into the basement and began to work on it ... Shaking my head and crying, teardrops falling all over my stone. I kept a-working at it, until it was two gravestones to place on the tomb. That's what beginned my career, that's what allowed me to become an artist."
After that sorrowful start, Holley began creating work in his backyard in Alabama, ending up with thousands of pieces, big and small, that turned the place into a crowded outdoor gallery, extending across roads and through land that had been abandoned by others in his neighborhood.
Like so much else in Holley's life, that art environment, the product of years of work, was taken from him — literally razed to the ground — by the Birmingham Airport through an eminent domain claim in 1998. His art was reduced back into the refuse from which it had been birthed. Holley talks very movingly about this "murder," as he terms it, in "Blackbird": "They made it into an art graveyard," he says. "I've got to come to a conclusion that maybe my art, when it was put back in the condition of material, sufficiently put food in someone's mouth."
Holley might have continued making his art — sandstone sculptures, assemblage from garbage and the debris of human life — in relative obscurity if Atlanta-based collector Bill Arnett hadn't met Holley in the 1980s and taken a serious interest in his work. Arnett's patronage has been very important to Holley's career, and Holley continues to work closely with Arnett's son, Matt Arnett, who now produces Holley's music. Totally improvisational, and difficult to categorize, Holley's music is "almost literally the sonic equivalent of his sculptures," says Halsey Director Mark Sloan. "He's taking found phrases sometimes, things he hears and working them into a song ... It's experimental. It's expansive. He's always looking to create that connection between the individual and the cosmos."
While Holley has works in museums including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Something to Take My Place is his first major solo museum show since a 2003 retrospective at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Bill Arnett is quoted as saying in a 2014 New York Times Magazine story called "The Insider's Outsider," "If Lonnie had been living in the East Village 30 years ago and been white, he'd be famous by now."
Holley's art and life — for the two are truly inseparable, as Sloan and many others have said — speak to deep questions about race and humanity, on both an intensely personal and broadly spiritual level. Holley himself is an eccentric character; at times he speaks in almost prophetic, riddling phrases, jumping from the banal to the abstract in a single thought. Talking about the patronage he's received from the Arnetts, for example, and the state of arts funding, he says, "I think every artist needs to have that moral support ... because they'll [the government, schools] cut art out of the budget. And art is something that Mother Earth will always need, that Mother Universe will always need."
Holley is nothing if not philosophical, even when discussing his almost impossibly sad and abusive childhood. "I look at my life now and say, without hardship, I wouldn't have a real career. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing, because I wouldn't have these materials or the subject matter to even talk about it or put on an exhibit. Think about if I was raised in a very rich community, a clean community with no waste, with nothing that I had to endure. I wouldn't have all that I got a chance to do."
That endurance, both his own and that of African Americans as a community, is a strong theme in Holley's art. Take "Blood on the Rock Pile," a vertical stack of rocks bound together by silver wire and streaked with red paint. The piece refers to an incident that happened to the artist while he was at Mt. Meigs, when Holley was brutally whipped until he bled for running away. He explains the meaning in the Halsey-produced video that accompanies Something to Take My Place, saying that the blood soaked through his clothes, so that anywhere he went he left bloodstains.
But "Blood on the Rock Pile" is not a commemoration of pain and suffering, or at least, not exclusively so — it seeks instead to transcend it. "He's made a life of turning trash into something meaningful," Sloan says. "This is his way of transforming that experience into something beautiful, meaningful, and useful to others."
As is the case with most, if not all, Holley's artworks, this piece is narrative although it appears abstract; in a similar way, though it's self-referential, it also offers itself as a symbol of the larger narrative of African Americans. "The whole thing with me being, as one would say, 'outside the mainstream' is that somebody like myself, or somebody as great as Mr. Thornton Dial [a highly prominent Southern, African-American artist whose work is also supported by Bill Arnett] ... all these works are having to do with our ancestors that have survived and came through their situations like slavery, having slaveowners to master us, then at the same time loving our nation so much that we tell our slavemasters that we would go and participate in the war. And we come back and be talked about, ridiculed, and we still rise up to be some of the greatest game players. Some of the greatest music makers. Some of the greater people in theater and acting," Holley says. He continues, "We were denied an education. We was denied the right to read and write. But we endured. And art were just another way for me to tell my story."
Also included in Something to Take My Place is "Changing Power," a piece that Holley created on a 2014 visit to Charleston. He visited the Mother Emanuel AME Church — the church that was the site of the June Emanuel Nine shooting — and collected pieces of power wire that were being discarded as the building was being renovated, combining them with coat hangers and other materials. Somehow, despite its new context, the work still retains a sense of warm tribute to a place that has served as a spiritual and community home for so many, and for so many years.
There's also joy, however, and even humor to be found in the exhibit. "Memorial at Friendship Church" is a frenetic creation of artificial flowers and ribbons within a large wire profile of a human face, with two smaller profiles nested among the flora. Holley gathered the materials while making his first professional recording in Gee's Bend, Ala. and says in his exhibition notes that it "honors the folks who were still living in Gee's Bend, and the ones who had died." And the minimalist piece "Future Skateboard," which consists of some sort of porous rock and a bent piece of metal, is a kind of whimsical question about our ties to the earth and the future of transportation — flying cars, rocket ships, and the like.
But whether it's created out of joy, pain, or anything else, one thing Holley's work is not is art for art's sake. Holley is adamant about sharing what he does with an audience, which is part of why he'll be at the Charleston Farmer's Market guiding attendees in making their own assemblage from found objects as part of his Halsey residency (that event takes place Sept. 12, 9 a.m.-12 p.m.) And one reason sharing what he does is so important to the artist is that he badly wants to help heal the world. It's really that simple.
"If you look at this show, it's going to show how blessed we are," he says. "Malcolm [X] says, 'By any means necessary.' I took that from the weapons, I took that from the violence, I took that from the hatred. I took those words and formed them around materials, so that the materials can be our means and efforts to get better."
One man's trash, as they say.