Flournoy Holmes channels music into vision

Prolific album-cover designer will have gallery show of his work

“Are you familiar with Jung?” a stranger with a lemon-yellow stripe in her hair asks, out of nowhere, leaning over from the next table. She’s looking at the battered portfolio that Holmes carries, with stickers of some of his artwork on the exterior, including the flamingo that he drew for the cover of Christopher Cross’ 1980 multiplatinum debut album.

Later on Holmes, 62, says this kind of thing happens a lot. “I’ll have people come up in a shopping center and say, ‘You look like a wise person, can I ask you a question?’ It must be the beard.”

In fact, Holmes knows a great deal about Jung and other esoteric topics, including Tibetan Buddhism, Peruvian shamanism and reiki energy manipulation. But maybe he gets approached because he looks like a guy who listens.

By listening to musicians, and by channeling his own free-ranging muse, Holmes made a career, during the heyday of the vinyl LP, as one of Atlanta’s most prolific designers of album covers.

Now 20 of the 1,000 or so albums that he has illustrated are part of an exhibit at the Perimeter-area Spruill Gallery, “Run for Cover,” up until March 6.

The show features about 500 album covers, including a whole wall of Holmes’ work, centered around his best-known cover, for the Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach.”

It’s a valuable, though narrow, retrospective of a well-known but little-remarked artist, a hidden treasure in Atlanta’s creative community who still doesn’t have a cellphone, Web site or debit card. About the disappearance of the vinyl record, Holmes is sanguine: “I was lucky to be able to make a living with my art.”

Holmes grew up in Spartanburg and went to the University of Georgia on a swimming and art scholarship. He was a diver. The forward three-and-a-half from the 3-meter board was his signature trick, but he got kicked off the team in 1966 when he wouldn’t cut his hair in the “high and tight” fashion that the coach preferred.

Holmes’ first cover was a goofy illustration for Southern rockers Wet Willie, and he went on to create a visual personality for at least a half dozen similar bands, on the Capricorn label and elsewhere, painting raccoons and flowers for Charlie Daniels and a numinous Western landscape for Marshall Tucker.

“He would maybe take the feeling that the band gave you musically and develop it into something that you could get by looking at the album cover,” says Dick Wooley, who was vice president of promotion at Capricorn during the 1970s. “A lot of times, a band didn’t have an identity, and he’d come up with something.”

Holmes was fluent in many media, including watercolor, air-brush, ink and pen, and created impeccable hand-lettering and staged and photographed elaborate tableaux. His style was mutable depending on the music inside.

The clean, spare rendering of the postcard joke on the front of “Eat a Peach” (a flatbed hauling a house-sized piece of fruit) contrasts with the crowded, trippy landscape on the gatefold interior, with its mushrooms, dragons and grotesque figures that he says, “I stole, sorry, ‘borrowed,’ from [Hieronymus] Bosch.”

“He’s a chameleon; he’s not a one-trick pony,” says Wooley.

Holmes did many covers for Landslide Records releases. And, during the 1980s, he rented studio space adjoining Landslide’s 14th Street headquarters, where he installed his plastic foam sculptures, drawing board and pet boa constrictor.

Some of Landslide’s music required a restrained hand, says CEO Michael Rothschild. For other bands, such as Bruce Hampton’s Late Bronze Age, he turned Holmes loose. To illustrate Hampton’s record “Isles of Langerhan,” “Flournoy had this vision of having a girl throw water in the air and catching it on film,” says Rothschild. “That was pure Flournoy.”

He photographed a totem pole built out of television sets for Arms Akimbo, and had his grade-school son Fletcher do the hand lettering on an Aquarium Rescue Unit disc.

Growing up in the Holmes household, “There were always musicians around, some famous, some not,” says Fletcher’s younger brother Cooper, now 28 and a musician and substitute teacher. “It took me a while to realize that it was not the way everyone grew up.”

The disappearance of vinyl sent Holmes to other avenues, designing art for the tiny world of compact discs, creating concert posters, running his own gallery, designing logos and graphics for restaurants, and venturing into film and music. He and associate Steven Hurlburt documented the jam band phenomenon in “Dread Heads,” a 2006 film that won a Stony from High Times magazines, the periodical of choice for pot smokers everywhere.

Currently, he plays flutes and percussion with a spontaneous improvisatory trio called the Flying Mystics. He makes his home in Virginia-Highland, a two-story bungalow deep with original art, potted plants and elaborate religious paintings from Tibet and Nepal.

Some of his own complex paintings, with their labyrinths of geometric and organic shapes, mirror the Tibetan art.

“I’ve been working on that one for six years,” he says of a work on the kitchen wall, featuring entwined snakes. “I’m not done yet. I still have to put the tongues on.”

He looks philosophical for a moment (which is easy when you look like a philosopher) and says, “It takes forever to do this intricate stuff, but recently I realized, hey, I’m not going to live forever, so I’d better finish this.”

View his work

Gallery hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the “Run for Cover” exhibit continues through March 6; free. The Spruill Gallery is at 4681 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Atlanta, 30338; 770 394-4019. www.spruillarts.org

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