The entranced crowd sits tightly packed around a keyboard in the main hall of the American Folk Art Museum. Behind the keyboard, a man in a trinket-laden black beret seamlessly moves from regaling the audience with stories to tinkling with the keys of his Korg. The natural rhythm of his speech, a dense, melodic spoken word, when fused with melody produces, for lack of a better description, a song. The show forms part of “When the Curtain Never Comes Down”, an exhibit, curator Dr. Valérie Rousseau explains, that features artists “whose very lives are an extended piece of performance art.” This performance is a natural extension of pieces displayed for the exhibit. Prior to the performance, I come to meet the bejewelled man behind the keys —Atlanta, Georgia-based Lonnie Holley— seated amidst the colorful sculptures of his fellow artists.
“I tell people I’m good as gold, you just can’t spend it,” drawls Holley in what will come to be the most direct answer I’ll receive to a question over the course of our meeting, as he extends a handshake in his signature fashion:
“Thumbs up to mother universe.”
The energetic, 65-year old Southerner —garbed in his collected regalia of chosen artful accessories— suggests taking a walk around the exhibit, as he wastes no time inducting me into the worldview of Lonnie Holley.
“Each piece holds its own amount of information to show, as to material and their value,” says Holley, admiring some marine-themed cut-outs, attached to Brazilian Raimundo Borges Falcao’s carnival headdresses. Pointing to Falcao’s artfully repurposed plastic, Holley seems to take a stand against wastefulness.
“We need to get trash out of the attitude, garbage outta the attitude and call it material or waste. If we can put it in those categories we can see it a lot better and touch it a lot easier.”
Holley is soon off on another tangent, directing my attention toward a sculpture of his own titled, “Protecting Myself the Best I Can”. Outside of the context of a museum, the piece more closely resembles a simple chipped cylindrical terracotta stand containing a golf putter, two baseball bats, and a hollow iron pipe. Framed within the museum and Holley’s commentary, though, this seemingly mundane object takes on a heightened significance.
Once the property of a “Miss Smith” – a lady, Holley tells me, he “really learned to love” – the object originally served as Miss Smith’s homemade arsenal. “Miss Smith told me: ‘I don’t want to buy no gun, but if someone break into my house, before I let ‘em hurt me, I’ll take one of these things outta here, and beat the hell outta them.’”
Holley’s recounting of this story reveals the inherent value contained within these objects—a rusted putter repurposed as an emblem of what growing up in his community was like. . In another sense, Holley is suggesting an idea not too dissimilar to that of Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-made” art.
Exactly a century ago, Duchamp borrowed the term from the clothing industry to describe common objects he would display unaltered. Similar to Holley, it was Duchamp’s intention to provide his audience with an opportunity to consider the object and in so doing, reflect some sort of truth that alters our perception of that object. Holley desires to take this further.
“A lot of people don’t want to take the time to understand the work,” he explains, slightly exasperated, “they like pretty stuff that goes on the wall, they don’t want to hear the information that goes along with it and that’s been the mistake.”
Curious as to what constitutes this “information”, Holley does not hesitate to demonstrate as we come upon his next sculpture.
“Look at this, it’s ‘Kid Power’”, Holley exclaims, gesturing toward a metal lunch box containing the words ‘Kid Power’, placed atop a play wooden ironing board and small wooden school desk.
“Isn’t that beautiful? It looks childish but it’s a ‘high-tech object’. Powerful kid. But, if you don’t feed that child right, that child is not going to learn the habits of elementary because he’s too hungry.”
Delving deeper, I seek out more of this object’s significance to Holley.
“I was one of those children that was too hungry and didn’t have a chance to get an education,” recalls Holley, well known for openly sharing stories of his tumultuous upbringing. In this instance, he recounts his very early childhood, when he was taken away from his mother and raised in a “whiskey house.”
“I started working when I was five years old, picking up paper every day for the state fair ground and drive-in theater, so I was already a little man by the time I was 6 or 7.”
This and the many other stories that accompany Holley’s “Kid Power’” lunchbox – titled “Learning the Right Way” – frame Holley’s own artistic education. Through learning in opposition to the “right way”, Holley developed an appreciation and empathy for the discarded. It took until his 29th year though to realize this education through art.
Following a fire at Holley’s sister’s house that took two of his nieces, Holley grabbed some kitchen tools and began carving tombstones from discarded sandstone, in the process discovering his “Kid Power”. From that moment, any object became a conduit for Holley’s expression, as he began to fill two acres of his family’s property with sculptures, some of which would soon come to be acquired by curators at the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.
In mining life experience as a source of inspiration and using art as a survival mechanism, Rousseau believes the label “performance artist” best fits individuals such as Holley. “Everything he creates is connected to him and this alter-ego that he has created to sustain this giant project, this lifelong performance,” she notes.
Further to this point, in 2012, Holley released his debut album as a recording artist, Just Before Music. Unsurprisingly, given Holley’s penchant for information, he’d spent decades making his own recordings as he went about constructing his sculptures. But it was only upon meeting Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, an archive-centric record label based in Atlanta, that this branch of his artistic practice was more formalized. With the release of Just Before Music, followed shortly thereafter with Keeping a Record of It, Holley had arrived as a widely recognized recording artist.
“When you speak with Lonnie he’s an excellent storyteller,” says Rousseau, moments before Holley takes the stage for his performance. “The music is never just the music, its an accessory to the project itself and the reason I don’t consider any of these projects individual projects but rather a continuum of what he started to do a long time ago.”
Holley treats his keys with the same veneration he reserves for found objects, sending forth sparse melodic tones from his heavily ringed fingers and drawing the audiences’ attention toward his singular creative force. Soon, there are his words—a lilting, more poetic version of the fine improvisational tour monologue I had received earlier. Here, Holley has all the room he needs to provide his “information”, weaving a narrative for any and all objects that have entered his orbit. Jumping from a meditation on the Statue of Liberty— that he had visited the day before on a trip to Ellis Island— to a song about the importance of our brains, Holley turns his keyboard into his pulpit, and we, his attentive congregation.
“It’s good that you write a journal or a diary about your life because that’s where a lot of the information can get out,” Holley tells me in the parting moments of our conversation, which he now repeats for the benefit of the crowd.
Holley is encouraging self-expression of any sort, even if it’s as simple as writing about your day. That’s what ultimately saved Holley from what might have been an otherwise pain-filled life—and, even more so, offered him a chance to realize within himself the potential to create meaning out of his experience of the world.
Put another way, by Holley: “Art for me is having the opportunity to take one thing that somebody else has thrown away, consider that thing and get an understanding of what its purpose was.”