Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Bradley Holley was born February 10, 1950, in Birmingham, Alabama. As Holley has told the story, his mother gave him up when he was 4 years old and later sold him to a bootlegger for a pint of whiskey. Years of abuse and a detention home stay followed, until, at the age of 14, Holley’s maternal grandmother brought him back to Birmingham.

His life remained unsettled until a house fire killed his sister’s children. Unable to afford grave markers, Holley collected a sandstone-like byproduct of steel manufacturing, from which he carved headstones. An early break came in 1981 when Holley brought a few examples of his sandstone carvings to Birmingham Museum of Art director Richard Murray. The BMA displayed some of those pieces immediately, and Murray introduced his work to organizers of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s traveling exhibition, “More Than Land and Sky: Art From Appalachia.”

Lonnie Holley later created an art environment from found materials on a piece of land hard by the Birmingham airport. Eventually the airport authority notified him that the land would be condemned for runway expansion. The dispute over his yard installation, over which a settlement was ultimately reached, only raised Holley’s art world profile.

Meanwhile, his work was being acquired by institutions such as the American Folk Art Museum in New York and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.

Holley’s work often revolves around children and family. It is important to him for people to know his mind as well as appreciate his art.

“I love my brain, man, but it’s been through an awful lot,” Holley told Garden & Gun magazine. “I had to use art to keep me from crying. I had to bring it all out of me and put it on something. So my art was that. I wasn’t able to write all about it. I was braining all about it.”

In his early 60s, Holley developed a second career as a music artist, now an internationally touring one, improvising what might be best termed a form of free jazz with organ and vocals.

“They are Siamese twins, coming from the same factory,” Holley said in Garden & Gun of his production of visual art and music.

In the same story, Holley rejected the various labels often applied to his creative output — outsider, folk, self-taught, visionary, mystic.

“All those things fit me like an ill-fitting suit,” he said. “And I’ve worn many suits in my life.”

So how does he think of himself?

“I’m an American artist.”

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