An American self-taught artist who is best known for his sculptures made of found materials and a pianist and singer who has toured extensively, Lonnie Holley discovered his artistic talents at age twenty-nine after a hardscrabble childhood. Born in 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama, Holley was the seventh of twenty-seven children. He grew up working odd jobs from the age of five, such as digging graves, cleaning up trash at a drive-in restaurant, and picking cotton, and he survived a near-fatal car accident when he was seven as well as a stay at a notoriously brutal juvenile detention facility, the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama. His formal education ended after the seventh grade. In his twenties Holley worked as a cook in a Disney World restaurant in Orlando, then drifted through several Southern states. When he returned to Birmingham he found his mother living in abject poverty. In 1979 his niece and nephew were killed in a house fire, and when his family could not afford tombstones for the children, Holley carved them himself using salvaged industrial sandstone. The act of sculpting opened Holley to a new creative outlet. Once he began to work with found materials, he could not stop—the yard art he created around his home near the Birmingham airport soon filled more than two acres. He showed some of his sculptures to Richard Murray (b. 1942), then the director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, who offered encouragement. Thanks to an introduction by Murray, two sculptures by Holley were included in the traveling exhibition “More Than Land and Sky: Art from Appalachia,” organized in 1981 by the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.) Murray soon acquired tow sculptures from Holley for the Birmingham museum and included his works in the 1987 exhibition,” He had solo exhibitions in a Birmingham gallery in 1984 and the Birmingham Public Library in 1986. Also in 1986 collector and curator William Arnett (b. 1939) visited Holley’s home, and became a supporter and advocate for Holley’s art, and purchased his works for Arnett’s Souls Grown Deep Foundation. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta included Holley’s work in a 1989 exhibition. His work appeared in numerous gallery and museum shows during the next decade. His life was upended, however, by the Birmingham Airport Authority, which wanted Holley’s property for a runway expansion and initiated condemnation proceedings. He reached a settlement with the Authority in 1997, but could not move all his sculptures from the property before the remaining works were bulldozed. Holley relocated to Harpersville, Ala., thirty miles southeast of Birmingham. It was a difficult time for him. He was caring for his five youngest children after their mother was sent to prison, feuded with his neighbors and had a run-in with the police. However, the Birmingham Museum of Art mounted a retrospective exhibition of his work in 2004, an exhibition that traveled to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England. He was award a Joan Mitchell Fellowship in 2006. In 2010 Holley moved to Atlanta. That year he began singing and playing his improvised blues music for a recording studio in Atlanta, which led to the release of his first album “Just Before Music” in 2012, followed by another album the next year as well as concert tours with other musicians in several locations in the United States and Europe. He continued touring for the next few years. Holley ventured into printmaking with the Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley in 2013, where he created eight etchings. In 2014 three of his sculptures were part of Arnett’s gift of some fifty works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Also that year the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston mounted a large solo exhibition of his works and he was awarded a Residency on Captiva Island, Fla., by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. His Residency led to a 2017two-person exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art with New Orleans conceptual artist Dawn DeDeaux (b. 1952), the first in a contemplated series of shows for artists who participated in the Captiva Residency. In 2017 four of Holley’s sculptures were among the sixty-two works acquired by the Fine Arts Museums from the William S. Arnett Collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, all of which were part of the 2017 exhibition at the de Young Museum, “Revelations: Art from the African American South.” (TNB 6/2017) Selected bibliography: Arnett, William and Paul Arnett, eds. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. 2 vols. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, in association with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, 2000, 2001. Sloan, Mark, ed. Something to Take my Place: The Art of Lonnie Holley. Exhibition catalog, with essays by Bernard L. Herman, Theodore Rosengarten, Mark Sloan and Leslie Umberger. Charleston: Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, College of Charleston, School of the Arts, 2015.
© Lonnie Holley/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York