Scanning through various “Best Of…” end of year selections I came across this track by Lonnie Holley. It was included in Gilles Peterson’s annual selection for on-line mag Dummy and that in turn sent me off to Bandcamp and the label who released it Dust to Digital.
Lonnie Holley is a 63 year old self taught artist who has notched up a stack of You Tube views with a meandering but hypnotic 13 minute track he recorded with Bradford Cox of Deerhunter and Cole Alexander of Black Lips. The video simply documents the three of them recording and playing and it gives us expanded access to the working of this man’s mind and how it all came together including the metallic percussive accents that result from Holley tossing a sawblade, weights and other chunks of metal into a wheel barrow.
Holley is not best known as a musician but as a an “outsider” artist. He began his artistic life in 1979 by carving tombstones for his sister’s two children who tragically died in a house fire. He believes that divine intervention inspired his artwork and also led him to the material he used – discarded blocks of a soft sandstone-like by-product of metal casting that he’d discovered at a local foundry.
Holley continued to create. He made other carvings and assembled them in his yard along with various found objects and in ’81 took a few examples of his sandstone carvings to Birmingham (Alabama!)Museum of Art director Richard Murray who immediately agreed to exhibit some of the pieces. In turn, Murray introduced him to the organizers of the 1981 exhibition ‘More Than Land and Sky: Art from Appalachia’ at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Soon his work was being acquired by other institutions, such as the American Folk Art Museum in New York and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. His work has even been shown at the White House.
By the mid-1980s his work had diversified to include paintings and recycled found-object sculptures. His yard and the adjacent abandoned lots near his home became an immersive art environment that attracted visitors from the art world and scrap-metal scavengers alike but eventually it was the expansion of the Birmingham International Airport that was to prove the biggest threat to the work he’d created.
In late 1996 Holley was notified that his hilltop property near the airport would be condemned. He rejected the airport authority’s offer to buy the property at the market rate of $14,000, knowing that his site-specific installation had personal and artistic value he demanded $250,000. The dispute went to probate court and in 1997 a settlement was reached and the airport authority paid $165,700 to move Holley’s family and work to a larger property in a small Alabama town called Harpersville. The appearance in town of this natty Afro American artist, accompanied with 5 of his 15 children and a truckload of artwork created from trash, apparently did not go down well his new neighbors.
A decade has now elapsed since Holley’s first major retrospective, Do We Think Too Much? I Don’t Think We Can Ever Stop: Lonnie Holley, A Twenty-Five Year Survey traveled from Birmingham, Alabama in 2003 to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England. Since then the man has worked on numerous site specific installations, has been featured in Arthur Crenshaw’s film ‘The Sandman’s Garden’ and remains a popular guest at children’s art events, bringing blocks of the foundry stone for children to carve. Lonnie Holley gets special pleasure from sharing his experience of learning to love oneself through creative activity.
Who can resist a record that has one track track entitled
‘Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants’? Check out his recorded work via Bandcamp https://dusttodigital.bandcamp.com/album/keeping-a-record-of-it –
Also, while we are on an “outsider” vibe I eventually succumbed to the wayward keys and ethereal vocals of Michigan based Otis G Johnson. Braving the pre-Xmas madness of Oxford Circus I headed off to If Music – Jean Claude’s vinyl sanctuary in Langham Street- whereupon I secured a copy of the LP, ‘Everything’ on the Holy Spirit label. Basically, it was the perfect slice of left-field gospel to play alongside other Xmas morning faves like Charles Brown’s ‘Merry Xmas Baby’, Charlie Parker with Strings, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, Trane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ and Ras Michael’s ‘Spiritual Roots’ – a sing along classic.