From worms to the Whitney: Inside Lonnie Holley’s imaginative world

Public art commissions, musical success keep self-taught artist in spotlight

He’s sold worms, flipped omelets, dug graves and endured immeasurable hardships. But now, at age 63, Lonnie Holley is in the fast lane, drawing an avalanche of attention for his art and music.

Having enjoyed a visual arts career spanning 35 years, the Atlanta resident has experienced recent meteoric success as a musician, racking up a string of achievements last year. He brought his haunting vocals to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “Blues for Smoke” performance series. He mounted his first European concert tour with his friend and supporter Matt Arnett, owner of the petite, Grant Park music venue, Grocery on Home. His debut CD, “Just Before Music,” on Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital label, made The Washington Post’s “Top 10 Albums of 2013.” His next album, “Keeping a Record of It,” took second place in the Chicago Sun-Time’s annual top-10 list, trailing Kanye West’s “Yeezus.”

Holley’s concert performances include rambling musings on slavery, social justice, Martin Luther King, technology and the dangers posed to Mother Earth. In a recent performance at Hammonds House Museum, he addressed Atlanta’s infamous Snowmaggedon.

Wearing a black beret tilted over one ear and a necklace of tangled objects, Holley sat down at a red-lacquered Nord Electro 2 keyboard and spread his fingers over the keys. Notes fell like gentle raindrops. His voice grew deep and guttural. He whistled. He gesticulated. And then he delivered a brief sermonette.

“If there are any young people out there, take care of your elders,” he advised the audience. “Can you imagine 14 hours of somebody’s grandmamma stuck in the car having to go to the bathroom? Let’s tell the truth.”

It says something about Holley’s eclectic interests that one of his most popular songs is “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants,” a tender birthday tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Its delicate ornamentation is “like a music box playing,” he said. “I was thinking of her having to listen to it as a person who didn’t have time to grieve. She had to take over the throne after her father died and govern civilization.”

Filmmaker George King, who has followed the artist with a camera for 18 years and is raising funds to create a feature-length documentary about his life, has been astonished to see Holley’s music career evolve so quickly.

King recalls seeing Holley pull out a Casio keyboard and sing late at night before going to sleep.

“As far as I was concerned, he was just playing music to entertain himself and chill out at the end of the day,” King said. “I never saw him play for an audience, not even for his family.”

Previously known for his “sandstone” carvings and sculptural assemblages made of found objects, the self-taught artist is also a printmaker, painter, photographer, collagist, computer artist and unorthodox storyteller. His work is in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, the American Folk Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, to name a few.

Lonnie is always on the lookout for materials and is constantly creating, whether it’s carving on a coconut shell, drawing on a napkin or tying colorful cloth strips to his backpack. He speaks with a poet’s tongue that has been unfettered by education, inventing words like “chiplings” for his small collage fragments and tumbling out phrases like “a quilt of happy birthdays.”

For most of April, Holley’s visual art will be on view in a storefront-cum-gallery at Ponce City Market, formerly City Hall East. The solo exhibit is organized by Cash Rojas Projects, a venture by Stephanie Cash, the editor of Burnaway arts publication and a former editor at Art in America, and her husband Carl Rojas. It’s the couple’s first attempt in a “roving gallery” project, and the placement is strategic. Holley was one of 26 artists represented in “Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South,” an exhibit held at City Hall East as part of the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival.

Titled “It’s Like Coming Home,” the new show brings together about 30 works from the mid-1990s to the present. Most significantly, it’s the first public display of the sculptures Holley created in January during an artist residency with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. Holley and seven other artists worked in Rauschenberg’s 8,000-square-foot, two-story studio, part of the expansive estate on Captiva Island, Fla., where Rauschenberg lived and worked until his death in 2008. Holley scavenged on the beach and in the Garden Street recycling center, one of Rauschenberg’s favorite haunts.

One of the new works is the towering construction “Broken but Still Strong,” which includes a bicycle, a cement-mixing cart and scaffolding gathered on the Rauschenberg compound. The work is reminiscent of a Rauschenberg sculpture, but while Rauschenberg’s assemblages examine the aesthetic qualities of everyday objects, “Broken but Still Strong” exudes magic. The work suggests a rickshaw with a muffler and a golden triangular seat, a chariot that might come alive at any moment and transport viewers away.

“It’s a monumental piece for a lot of reasons,” said art collector Bill Arnett (and father of Matt Arnett), who owns many pieces by Holley. “The Rauschenbergs of the world were getting their ideas from the Holleys of the world, rather than the other way around,” he contends. “History is written to reflect that white, European and American artists initiated every ‘ism’ of the 20th century. As good as those artists were, they were getting their ideas from other cultures, first African, then African American.”

“My life has been my lesson that makes me the artist I am,” said Holley, sipping iced coffee at Community Grounds Café near his home in south Atlanta. He fondly recalls his job as a 5-year-old growing up in Birmingham, Ala. – turning over rocks and leaves in search of earthworms, which he sold for a penny a piece or 50 cents a cupful.

“Inch by inch, those worms taught me how to focus,” he said. “A lot of children are maybe afraid of worms, but I was curious.”

As he tells it, Holley’s childhood included traumas of fairy tale-like proportions. What’s true or not is hard to say. According to his creation story, his mother gave birth to 27 children, and he was baby No. 7. When he was about 18 months old, a burlesque dancer at a state fair “stole” him and took him around the country until he was 4. Then she traded him to a family in Birmingham for a pint of whiskey.

As a 13-year-old at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a juvenile correctional facility in Mount Meigs, Ala., Holley was brutally lashed 150 times and made to sit on a rock pile as an “example” for other youth, he recounts in “Souls Grown Deep: African American Art of the South,” an extensive two-volume set edited by William Arnett and his son Paul Arnett.

Holley’s art-making began quite accidentally. In 1979 his niece and nephew perished in a house fire, and the family was too poor to buy gravestones. Using discarded blocks of sand from an iron-making foundry where his grandfather worked, Holley carved two small tombstones. Other “sandstone” carvings followed, and Holley began leading children’s workshops, earning the nickname “The Sandman.” He began his rise out of obscurity when two of his sculptures were chosen for a 1981 group exhibition at the Smithsonian.

For the next two decades, his creations proliferated, spilling into an elaborate “yard show” around his hillside home overlooking the Birmingham airport, property he inherited from his grandfather. But in 1997, his Shangri-La was razed by bulldozers as part of a proposed land expansion by the Birmingham Airport Authority, said Matt Arnett.

Now Holley is busily creating commissioned public art. Vulcan Park and Museum in Birmingham has commissioned him to create a series of sculptures celebrating the park’s 10th anniversary this year and the concomitant 110th anniversary of its colossal cast iron statue of Vulcan, the mythical blacksmith deity.

In Nashville, Holley and artist Thornton Dial have been commissioned to design site-specific artwork for Edmonson Park, a neighborhood park being revitalized to honor Nashville sculptor William Edmonson. Named an artist-in-resident, Holley also leads art-making workshops for at-risk teenagers at the Oasis Center, a youth center beside the park.

“It’s all just starting to fall in place for Lonnie, and his music is a real important part of that,” said Matt Arnett.

“It took the world a long time to come around and appreciate his genius.”

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