The Atlanta-based artist gathers scraps and junk for his work, but his music is a meditation on America
Lonnie Holley’s life story is, in many ways, preposterous.
Holley, a visual artist and a musician, who will perform music at SECCA in Winston-Salem on Sunday, Feb. 5, was born in Birmingham, Alabama. I spoke to Holley about his life and work last week on the phone from Atlanta.
His music is like his art, drawn from his experience and his surroundings, focused on a kind of shamanic healing. Holley brings together reflections about human history, geological time, and the cosmos. Into that surface he braids stories from his own life, toggling between a first-person style of recounting rooted in the South, about his recent travels and experiences and a more mystical rumination about nature, the planet and the universe. Holley, 66, described recent trips to England where he felt like he was communing with the past and spirit of the place simply by taking in how construction, human ingenuity, social strife and time had marked the landscape.
“When I come into a city or a town — or a country — I kind of observe and see what my surroundings are,” says Holley. “I really like looking at what the town is built off. Because of what our ancestors built with, versus what we’re building with today — the materials. You can almost tell what their mentalities are, just by being in certain parts of the city. That well of ideas is always there that I’m in. … It’s more like putting a puzzle together. The pieces that I collect and put together have to be studied. Hopefully I’m saying something that will encourage and inspire somebody to look at the situation around us.”
As a child, Holley was bounced around between people, unofficial foster families and institutions. He lived in a gin joint that was also a brothel, as a boy. He spent time in a home for African-American boys that was basically like living in slavery or indentured servitude: He was put to work on chain gangs picking up trash on the roadside, beaten for no reason and learned to sing work songs. After reuniting with the woman he called his grandmother, he lived across the street from a drive-in theater, where he would sit atop the roof with a rigged set of speakers playing the audio from the movies, watching the sci-fi, westerns, adventures, war stories, gangster films, costume dramas, romances and comedies that Hollywood cranked out, soaking up storylines and soundtracks. There were formative years when his bed was next to a jukebox that played the hits of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. The house he lived in was also near the state fairgrounds, and Holley would crawl through a drainage culvert to get inside the fairgrounds where he would hear the bands of the era, playing soul, gospel, country, jazz and rock’n’roll. He heard the oratory of preachers at church on Sunday. He heard the speeches of the Civil Rights Movement on the radio and TV.
Holley makes assemblages and installations with found materials, with junk and debris and scraps of stuff he picks up — busted-up furniture, crime-scene tape, cables from electronics. His art is about stopping and taking in what’s been cast aside, understanding what it means, where it came from, what it might still be good for and how to transmute what’s been thrown away or left to deteriorate into something deep and beautiful. His work has been shown internationally.
Some of his first creations were a set of homemade gravestones — they couldn’t afford any others — for two of his sister’s children who died in a house fire. (He’s also sung songs that allude to the fire.) His assemblages have points of connection to artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys for their interest in found objects, unconventional materials and the link between the physical world, and his mode of work can be compared to artists like Howard Finster, for his visionary, outsider status, and to Yayoi Kusama, whose obsessive near-constant working habits help explain the dense mesh and enveloping patterns of her paintings and sculptures.
Holley doesn’t seem to ever stop creating. When I spoke to Holley there were a few times when he mentioned that he wanted his longtime friend and sort of informal assistant Matt Arnett to either jot a phrase down or take a picture of something; some of the phrases get incorporated into musical performances. Holley was busy sketching patterns and words in a spiral-bound book of index cards. After I asked if Holley had been able to do something creative during our almost-90-minute conversation, Arnett sent a photo to capture the scene. (Arnett is the son of William Arnett, the writer, collector and curator who helped advance Holley’s visual artwork and who also brought the Gee’s Bend quilters and other African-American vernacular art to national attention.)
Matt Arnett was partially responsible for introducing Atlanta-area music community to Holley’s singing and recordings. Arnett connected Holley to the label Dust-to-Digital, which generally releases archival reissues of old recordings, but issued Holley’s first album, Just Before Music, released in 2012.
When I asked Holley about the distinction between his visual art and his music, about what he brings from one to the other, and about whether he approaches his music-making as if it were sound art, and he suggested that it was the other way around: that the visual art is just a physical expression of the spirit of song.
“It’s like me singing out in the museum,” Holley says about his art work.
It makes a kind of sense, then, that Holley’s music would be similarly non-traditional and hard-to-peg, an unclassifiable amalgam, an inspired piece of sonic bricolage in performance. Holley uses electronic keyboards, with synthetic, swelling organ and harp sounds, or hushed, wobbly and moaning siren sounds. He plays in a drone-heavy stream, with the sounds rising up and fluttering like a plume of smoke. He sings, almost in the manner of South Indian Carnatic singers exploring the notes of a raga at the beginning of a piece, sketching out the steps that a melody will climb. Sometimes it sounds like he’s playing sparse Japanese folk melodies on the keyboard, plinking at a pentatonic scale. His singing flows out in semi-improvised rambles, blending references to past and present, riffing off of recollections from his life and weaving observations from the day of his performance. It’s a little like impromptu spoken-word storytelling set to a murmuring ambient wash with hints of melodic contours and rhythmic articulations. Sometimes he collaborates with other musicians, as he will at the Winston-Salem show, making music that can change and adjust based on who’s playing.
“I’ve found that everybody kinda falls into the groove and we’re as one,” says Holley about the difference between playing solo and with a group. “I listen for the blend and I go with it.”
Holley will be performing at the SECCA show with his band, and cellist/singer and composer Ben Sollee will play a separate set as well, possibly joining Holley’s band at some point in the evening. Holley has also collaborated with members of the Atlanta-based indie rock bands Deerhunter and the Black Lips.
If you wanted to try and find points of comparison in music, one might gesture toward visionary artists like Arthur Russell, Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Can, Robert Pete Williams, and Gil Scott-Heron for a variety of different reasons. This is music that seems to pull from energy sources outside the realm of the routine. There’s a sensitivity about suffering and justice and our proper place in the world.
Holley’s work addresses the idea that just because something — whether it’s an object, a person or a whole class of people — is broken down, reduced to component parts and left aside as worthless, that doesn’t mean there’s not value and richness there.
“I can talk about the foundation of a place and how that foundation can begin to crumble. That’s the Humpty Dumpty,” says Holley in a speaking style that is as free and loose as his art.
Another theme Holley mentions is that people — and whole countries and species — can perform miraculous acts of regeneration and healing, by getting to work, staying busy and being creative. There’s a pragmatic message to Holley’s work, as unorthodox as it might look or sound at first.
“We gotta be like the ants, we gotta be like anything else that has their environment destroyed,” he says. “We’ve got to keep on moving forward, and be quick to repair.”
This is a man who knows about enduring deprivation and hardship, who’s seen the power of rejiggering the scraps of our surroundings and of our experience. For Holley, the whole business of creating art — of building assemblages and making music — is a defiant and jubilant mode of survival.
“That’s what I had to do in order just to live with it,” he says. “These emotions lived with you. It’s like going into the military and coming back shell-shocked. This art was actually telling ways of living life.”
Holley says he expects his performance at SECCA will in some ways be a site-specific piece of music that pertains to the surroundings.
“I’m coming to give them a report about natural life,” he says. “I’m going to have to come there and I’m going to have to sing to Winston-Salem.”
Wanna go? Lonnie Holley and Ben Sollee perform as part of the Crossroads@SECCA series at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 5 at SECCA (750 Marguerite Dr., Winston-Salem). Tickets are $18 – $33. Call 336-725-1904 or visit secca.org for more information.