Artist Lonnie Holley is a man of many mysteries. Through his art he investigates, uncovers, and conjures memories from discarded items. His assemblage installations are constellations of trash, debris, found objects, and mementos that shine a light on consumption and our throwaway culture. The experiences he’s collected along his travels around the world have led his artistic practice to evolve from carving sandstone to throwing pottery. His latest show, Coming from the Earth at Dallas Contemporary, features a series of clay vessels he created during a recent trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. (His work is also currently on view in his solo show What Have They Done with America? at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles through August 13.)
“I’m so honored to be in this show and have worked with clay; the clay, the muck, the bottom of the muck,” Holley told Hyperallergic in a phone interview from his Atlanta studio. “You know clay comes from some serious places on the earth. It comes from the bottom layer, from down by the river, the creek. I’ve worked with clay pretty well all my life.”
For Holley, art is a process of self-discovery and rediscovery: “I’m self-taught but each day I’m re-teaching myself something else,” he said. In many ways, this new medium takes him back to his origins as an artist, but to call Lonnie Holley an “artist” only tells a bit part of a life whose epic origins begin in a muddy Alabama ditch.
Holley is one of 27 children born to Dorothy May Holley Crawford in Birmingham in 1950, where he spent his childhood as an itinerant wanderer, taken under the bedazzled wing of a burlesque dancer who traveled the south as a carnival worker. By the age of five, he was living in a Whiskey House. At seven he was hit by a truck that dragged him two blocks down a road; the accident put the young artist in a coma for three and a half months. Then, at eight, he was sent to the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a notoriously abusive labor camp for orphaned and delinquent youths. Despite the tragic events that weaved their way through his childhood, he honors the influential women in his life who nurtured him, from his grandmother, who dug the graves of three of the girls who were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, to Mrs. McElroy, the wife of the Whiskey House owner who watched over Holley as a young child. He pays homage to these women in bent wire sculptures he shapes into the silhouettes of faces, which become armatures for found materials. Without the privilege of a formal education, Holley learned from the close observation of these women, who became his informal teachers; carnival fairgrounds and drive-in movie theaters were his classrooms.
“There was so much around me to reward my curiosity,” Holley explained. “By me traveling with the carnival and by me being passed from hand to hand I still was ‘seeing.’ By two and a half I was crawling, sneaking out of the tent—I was a big enough child to be going exploring because I was curious. I got to see the footsteps of the animals, the different places with newborn animals, I saw conditions—how the keepers kept the animals, the industrial products that were being put on exhibit to show the state of industrial growth...”
Holley’s art practice is defined by his sense of curiosity and an insatiable desire to find answers. On a rainy spring day the question might be as simple as, “Where does the water go?” At five years old, that curiosity led him out the back door of the Whiskey House to the backyard, and then the edge of the property, leading to a ditch. This is where his treasure hunts began. “At the edge is where we throw away the things of value,” notes Holley. “I knew from a little bitty child that it went down the sewer pipe because I crawled down those sewer pipes, and that it dumped down into the creek. I was fortunate enough to encounter broken glass, broken stones, discarded material, paper bags.” From the flow of water that washes away debris to the mud and muck that’s left behind by a spring rain, one question leads to another. Lonnie followed the trail of debris for answers, crawling through large sewer pipes that would lead from the state fairgrounds out into the creeks. “That was at four and a half, five years old,” he reminisces. “My reward was to look into the bag, to open up the boxes. I didn’t know anything about being an artist back then … I’m not so into jewelry or money, but I think my brain was trained to open up and look in and consider—to process.”
Found material became his muse, and tracing the source of that material informed his world view. Embedded in Lonnie Holley’s artistic practice is a cautionary message about waste. As he talks about the deleterious effects of over-consumption, global warming, and environmental degradation, he also discusses what he has learned watching items deteriorate. He describes this analytical process as “thought smithing,” studying the rates of deterioration in various materials over time, from tin and metal containers in the 1950s to plastics in recent years. “We have made more plastic waste than ever in these three years of COVID, using more plastic containers, plates, forks, knives...” He extrapolates these micro observations into macro issues of corporate governance and individual behaviors that contribute to these problems. “Let’s be truthful with ourselves. We have more dangerous conditions on earth now than we ever did before because we’re processors,” he says. “We processed all this material, we built with it, we built our foundations with it, and now that it’s collapsible we want to blame it on tornadoes, shaky conditions, the weather.” In re-purposing discarded material into art, Holley examines consumer culture through the lens of waste, challenging viewers to ask fundamental questions about the long-term effects of our own consumption habits.
Under Holley’s watchful eye, deterioration is also a platform for discovery. “Every concept has to have a foundation, and then you have to build upon it. Sometimes that foundation is death.” In 1979, after the deaths of his niece and nephew in a house fire, he carved a pair of tombstones from reclaimed sandstone. This marked the formal beginning of his art practice, but for Holley, creating was always about necessity and “making a way out of no way.” He created over 100 sandstone sculptures around this time, which he showed at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and by 1981 he participated in his first group show, More Than Land or Sky: Art of Appalachia at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Learning, or “re-learning” as he calls it, gave him space to grow and develop. Sandstone transitioned to found materials and later paint, wire sculptures, and ceramics.
Another important expression of his artistic voice is music, which has become a lyrical manifesto for his visual art. “Music is our testimony. It has been all through life” Holley enthused. He released the first of his five albums in 2012; his music combines blues, folk, and jazz in melodic meditations on the themes expressed in his work.
Over the years the material, message, and medium have evolved, but Holley has remained committed to the process of re-use, and his latest ceramic vessels are imbued with familiar motifs, including facial profiles that reappear in wire sculptures and ceramic tile paintings that line the museum walls. His return to clay brings his practice full circle, to the weathered rock, mud, and muck that he explored as a child: “It’s always gonna be going back to the ditch with me.”