By: Ajay Kurian
What usually starts the conversation about Lonnie Holley is his biography. His childhood in the Jim Crow South was so unbelievable, you’d think it was a tall tale. From being pronounced dead at the age of seven to his grave-digging grandmother, Lonnie’s life has been nothing if not eventful. Meeting him is no less mythic. The 71-year-old artist greets you gladly with his thumb pressing yours, fingers crunchy with rings, as he pronounces “Thumbs up for the Mother Universe.” He means it. His belief in the capacities of art in all its forms is profound and contagious. Holley is a collage artist at heart, taking things that are both prized and forgotten, and mixing them together into paintings, sculptures, and music that feel like contemporary relics guiding us forward. His work is a lasting testament to art’s brooding and joyful power.
In the past year, Holley took up a winter residence at the Elaine de Kooning house in East Hampton, where he spent several months making over one hundred new artworks, some of which are now being shown at South Etna Montauk Gallery and the Parrish Art Museum. I spoke to him recently over Zoom about the exhibitions and much more. Our first conversation sadly did not record, but there is one bit I want to recount: A friend of mine and fan of Mr. Holley’s told me that he takes these little nothings and makes them into not beauty, but glory. When I told Lonnie that, he responded “The glory is the story.”
AJAY KURIAN: It’s great to see you. I was reading the press release for your show at South Etna Montauk. There's something that you said: "As we develop our personness we learn to yield to the ancestors and the history of learning. We develop that inner head, that second head, the keeper head, the embankment of all wisdom." I was thinking about how a lot of this show seems like it's an homage to the women who came before you.
LONNIE HOLLEY: Well, the materials that I used as canvas or as pieces of sculpture are a lot of times reflecting on what elderly women had used as their ways of keeping information, but a lot of times this information wasn't explained to us as children. We only knew that we would land under a beautiful quilt that they had created. They had worked so hard to sew each patch together, but they never did explain: "Sit down here, child. Let me tell you about this patch versus that patch which was your grandfather’s. These are some clothes from your great grandfather because your grandfather kept them and wore them."
It's like what had been left behind for us has been utilized by what we call our ancestors. I'm quick to say our ancestors because any dead members or any that are older than I am, the elders, they are our ancestors in a sense, but they are living ancestors. There are our dead ancestors and there are those that predate our understanding. We have to do our research on our lineage in order to find out what part of the blood we are from.
KURIAN: Do you feel like that's always a part of your work?
HOLLEY: I think that the spiritual connection is the part that actually keeps us out of danger because if we're focused on doing our very, very best to respect each other, we won't have time for disrespect because we will be constantly learning.
KURIAN: That's really nice. There's a song of yours that also feels appropriate here, Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants, about why you sing for your queen.
HOLLEY: Not just one queen, queens. Because you remember, I might have been singing for Queen Elizabeth’s inauguration but there were five other queens that I put together with her to create the six queens for the six space shuttles.
And it’s not about having 144,000 elephants, but having horsepower. I thought instead of horses, let's have machines with elephant power. These machines could bore holes, big giant holes in the ground at any given time without using any explosives that would crack the earth. Dr. King said, "Let's do it just and right. Let's do it as smoothly as we can." This was all going on in my imagination, in my ocean of thought.
I was in and out of that ocean while I was creating this piece for queens. All I had to offer was my words and my art. That's all I have to offer while I live. I often remember the Gee's Bend song called Give Me My Flowers While I Yet Live. My art is like a bouquet of materials gathered as a bouquet of flowers.
I'm an abstract man, it may be broken down but I still say [my materials] can be utilized, because we are the humans to figure it out. “Tangled up in de Kooning's Fence” is saying that while I'm tangling up or while I'm untangling myself, I am reflecting on the idea that I've been tangled up by this before. I've been in these vines and couldn't get out. I've been going up and down the creek and I saw all this stuff hanging on the branches on the roof.
KURIAN: Do you consider these two shows you currently have on view to be sister shows or are they separate?
HOLLEY: They both came from a sort of comfort at Elaine de Kooning's house. They are a witness to capability and they are a witness to an artist's responsibility. They are also in a sense collaborations because if it wasn't for all the people that had to be involved, they never would have gotten on exhibit so quickly. There was a lot of things gathered out in nature. The different types of rot, if we turn it over, we can see the life underneath it.
KURIAN: You've been making music and making art for so many years now. Do you feel like you need to find a space where you start to create or are you always ready to create?
HOLLEY: I have a condensed concept of creating: creativity. Remember when we were younger, we was taught that a picture is worth 1,000 words? What if I can rework the picture and rework the picture and rework the picture into a million words, into a billion words?
By the time my offspring's coming to look at the picture, they may rework and enhance it to a billion or a trillion, and then before life is over, it may end up in a zillion words that could be spoken about those pictures. For me, it's analysis, it's placement. It's how I see the value of material.
KURIAN: I feel like whenever I see your work, there's always this beautiful mixture of feelings that are very much of the earth but beyond the earth, like there's a greater maybe cosmic sensibility to all of these things. How do you think about these conflicting emotions, our time here on earth, as well as our being spirits?
HOLLEY: I love the concept you ended on, that we're spirits, us being spirit. If you harm one spirit, another spirit feels it. If you go out there and you do the elements of the spirit wrong, it feels it. If you do the mothership wrong, if patch by patch, you misuse this patch, abuse that patch, or not sew that patch on right, that patch is going to tear away quickly. All of everything is a patch of layers unto our spiritual values.
I did a piece here in Atlanta. It's called Earth Flower . Us, the humans, we're earth flowers too, but we are free to go from flower to flower and get an understanding of it.
KURIAN: Do you think of the planet as a garden that we cultivate?
HOLLEY: It is our Garden of Eden. It is. I did [another piece about] Adam and Eve. I remember I did it in honor of the Adam that I had met out there because sometimes the spirit gives you a gesture of what your metaphor is going to need to be built on. There were a lot of little pieces of debris. There were little pieces of stuff that had even been ran over, and nobody would've ever thought of utilizing. it.
I am an artist. Therefore, I'm an inspector of my ideas. I want to know. I'm curious. I did a song called They Beat the Curiosity Out of Me. Almost everything I say, I did a song about. If I was denied curiosity, if I was denied development, as if I were fresh off the slave ship, and I called it, I snuck off the slave ship in my imagination. You heard that one.
KURIAN: I did, yes.
HOLLEY: With my imagination and me sneaking off and seeing all that, not only what I had to do to get better, but I had to do to make it better for each and every one of us, my enslaved brothers and sisters.
KURIAN: I don't know if you remember this, we met at your first show at James Fuentes Gallery. James introduced us and the first thing you asked me was whether I was a writer or not. [chuckles] I said, "Yes, I'm a writer. I'm an artist as well, I make sculpture." You didn't know me at all, but you looked at me and you said that I was here to teach and that I need to keep writing because I'm here to teach the people. I never forgot that because I teach quite a bit now.
HOLLEY: The spirit speaks to spirit. The spirit seeks you out and uses you because it knows that you're going to be, one would say, easy access. It accesses your dreams, it accesses your physical everyday being. It doesn't matter who you are or what you are. People have called me so many things and gave me so many titles, and they are all ill-fitted suits. What people called me didn't even fit me but yet still, I knew that I was working on the behalf of the spirit of life.
I told you that I was digging graves with my grandmother. My grandmother was in her 80s, about 82 something years old, and she was digging the graves for the three of the four little girls that had got bombed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. I was in the graveyard to help dig a grave. I wanted to get out of the grave and go play with my cousins. She told me to get back down into the grave because I could not put a straight coffin in a crooked grave. I carry that with me all the time. If we're going to do a job, we need to focus on doing that job the best that we can. I did the best that I could after her telling me to prove to her, "Yes, ma'am, I hear you. Yes, grandmom… Yes, savior”. She had become my salvation because I was in this place called Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children, a slave camp that she came and got me out of.
Salvation is not easy once you start losing it. It’s not easy to get another grip.
KURIAN: Have you ever felt like you almost lost your grip?
HOLLEY: I think that's what was happening to me when I first started doing the baby tombstones for my sister's children, I was losing my grip on the reality factor of my life. That meant I was drinking too much, I was trying to digest people's problems and take them in without the skills to work them out.
At that time, I just wasn't focused enough, and just by me finding this material, it taught me how to get focused. It taught me the clarity that comes along with being focused because you then have a way of meditating on something. Mostly all of your prophets had a way of meditating on something if it was nothing but moving a pile of rocks from this pile to that pile.
That's a form of meditation. It's a form of meditation that we, the artists, had learned to use. You could see this quilt behind me. This is one of the Gee's Bend's quilts. It's so beautiful.
KURIAN: It is beautiful.
HOLLEY: It took an awful lot of sewing there. I don't know whether you ever saw Mr. Thornton Dial’s work.
KURIAN: Yes, of course.
HOLLEY: Thornton Dial’s work was a placement of different materials and ensuring that this material had longevity. He had to think about not only the concept of material, but he had to think about the placement of it, he had to think about the stability of it. It's a lot we, the artists, have to think about, that a lot of people that call themselves critics [don’t] even give us credit for.
KURIAN: That is very true. I wonder whether you put secrets in your work?
HOLLEY: There is always something that is going to be unmentioned. We can't help that. All of our artists have unmentioned concepts because some of us are working from deep emotions, and some of us just leave it abstract and say, "It's an abstraction." We get away from depicting any of our emotions, telling about any of our feelings while we were creating. I learned of depictions very early, and what they meant to the onlooker, or how it helped the onlooker to navigate through the art, because you left some information for them to deal with.
KURIAN: I would say that you're an elder for a lot of artists. Do you have relationships with younger artists?
HOLLEY: My relationship with any artist is my work. It's my works, the work that's in the museums, the work that's in the United Nations, the spoken words that I have spoken, the music that I have performed with collaborators, the sounds of a creative brain.
KURIAN: What's the process of collaboration for you?
HOLLEY: The process of collaboration for me—just as well as me being a part, I had to hear what they had to offer, what each artist had to offer. I think we should not always look to be the loudest one in the crowd because if we over-pitch everybody else, we can't even hear ourselves. That means if we can get comfortable in hearing what the other humans have to offer or the sound that is going to enhance what you are saying, we just need some kind of way to say, "I'm appreciative. I'm grateful. I thank you, and hopefully, we'll see each other down the line at another time."