Lonnie Holley is an acclaimed, Birmingham, AL-born and-based multi-disciplinary artist, art educator and musician. Holley has had a profoundly difficult life, which has been well-documented: He was taken away from his family as a child by a burlesque dancer, who ultimately left him in the care of the proprietors of a whiskey house on the state fairgrounds. He then lived in several foster homes, before spending time at the notorious juvenile facility the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, where he suffered terrible abuse.
From the time he was a small boy — about five or so — Holley has managed to work a variety of jobs: He has picked up trash at drive-in movie theater, washed dishes, picked cotton, was a chef and was even a gravedigger.
Holley’s creative and artistic life began in earnest back in 1979: Heartbroken by the death of his sister’s two children, who tragically died in a house fire, he carved tombstones out of a soft sandstone-like byproduct of metal casting, which was discarded by a foundry near his sister’s house. He firmly believes that divine intervention led him to the material — and inspired his art.
He went on to make other carvings and began assembling them in his yard with various found objects. Locally, he began to occasionally be known as The Sand Man.
In 1981, Holley brought a few examples of his sandstone carvings to Birmingham Museum of Art director Richard Murray. Murray was so impressed that the museum displayed some of those pieces immediately.
Murray then introduced Holley to the organization of that year’s “More Than Land and Sky: Art from Appalachia” exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.This led to the Birmingham-based multi-disciplinary artist’s work being acquired by several institutions including New York’s American Folk Art Museum, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and others — and he has had his work displayed at The White House.
By the mid 1980s, Holley’s work had expanded to include paintings and recycled and found-object sculptures. His yard and the adjacent abandoned lots near his home became an immersive art environment, that was highly celebrated by the larger art world. Unfortunately, that art environment was frequently threatened by scrap metal scavengers. Tragically, his work was torn down as a result of the expansion of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
Holley sued and eventually won a settlement in which the airport authority paid $165,700 to move his family and work to a larger property in Harpersville, AL. (It shouldn’t be surprising that the acclaimed artist is a primary subject of Unreformed, a new podcast from the folks at iHeartMedia.)
His first major retrospective Do We Think Too Much? I Don’t Think We Can Ever Stop” Lonnie Holley, A Twenty-Five Year Survey was organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art, and eventually travelled to the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK.
From 2003-2004, Holley created a sprawling, sculptural environment at the Birmingham Museum of Art’s lower sculpture garden as part of their “Perspective” series of site-specific installations. The creation of the installation was documented in Arthur Crenshaw’s film, The Sandman’s Garden and by photographer Alice Faye “Sister” Love.
He also installed sculptural work for the exhibition Groundstory: Tales from the shade of the South at Agnes Scott College’s Dalton Gallery, which ran from September 28, 2012 to November 17, 2012.
2012 was a very busy year for Holley: He also released his full-length debut album Just Before Music. He followed that up with 2013’s Keeping a Record of It. His third album, 2018’s MITH, which was released by Jagjaguwar Records, saw Holley cementing a sound and approach informed and inspired by the blues, soul, avant-garde jazz and spirituals.
Holley’s fourth album, the Jackknife Lee-produced Oh Me, Oh My is slated for a March 10, 2023 release through Jagjaguwar. Oh Me, Oh My reportedly is a sharpening and refinement of the work contained on MITH, Stirring in one moment and a balm the next, Oh Me, Oh My details histories both global and personal. The album features an acclaimed collection of collaborators including Michael Stipe, Sharon Van Otten, Moor Mother, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Rokia Koné, who serve as choirs of angels and co-pilots, assisting in giving Holley’s message flight, while reaffirming the man as a galvanizing, iconoclastic force.
Holley’s creative work is much more about our place in the cosmos, than the cosmos itself. It’s often about how we overcome adversity and bitter heartache and pain with our dignity intact; about how we develop and maintain an affection for our fellow spacetime travelers about how we need to stop wishing for some “beyond” and start caring for the one life and the one rock we have. Oh Me. Oh My sees the refinement of Holley’s impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics. During each session Holley and Lee would discuss the essence of the song and distill the acclaimed multi-disciplinary artist’s word to their most immediate and earnest center. And as a result, the central message of his work may arguably be the most clear and concise on this album.
The album’s first single, album title track “Oh Me, Oh My” is a hauntingly gorgeous, spectral, piano-led meditation featuring Michael Stipe’s imitable plaintive wailing and Holley’s achingly soulful crooning. Sonically seeming to mesh elements of Brian Eno‘s ambient work and Gil Scott-Heron‘s Pieces of a Man and I’m New Here, “Oh Me, Oh My” deals with mutual human understanding with a earnest yet beguilingly Zen-like profundity.
“My art and my music are always closely tied to what is happening around me, and the last few years have given me a lot to thoughtsmith about,” Holley says. “When I listen back to these songs I can feel the times we were living through. I’m deeply appreciative of the collaborators, especially Jacknife, who helped the songs take shape and really inspired me to dig deeper within myself.”