Lonnie Holley: Keyboard Conjurer
By Andrew Dietz
“Art is,” says Lonnie Holley. “A.R.T. I.S.,” he repeats. “A is All. R is Rendered. T is Truth. Art. All Rendered Truth. I is for internal. S is for self. Is: internal self. Art is All Rendered Truth, Internal Self,” Holley explains. Holley’s description of art is poetic but not the full story. His entire explanation cannot be shared in words alone. It cannot be shared in painting or sculpture alone. It can’t be shared in keyboard notes or haunting chants only. Art, in Lonnie Holley’s case, is a living amalgam of experiences and impressions conjured in real time by the long-fingered hands of a magician. Art, in Lonnie Holley’s case, is Lonnie Holley.
If Charles Dickens had been born in Alabama instead of England, Oliver Twist may have been titled, Lonnie Holley. Holley’s childhood was downright Dickensian. Born in Birmingham, AL to a woman who ultimately birthed twenty-seven children, Holley was stolen from her when he was not yet two-years-old. He was sold for a bottle of booze at age four and then beaten and mistreated by the tyrant of the whiskey house into which he had been traded. Hoping to escape, he ran into the street at age seven and was struck by a car, dragged beneath and then confined to bed for three months’ recovery. Later, he ran away again, fell asleep on top of an idling train and woke up hours later in New Orleans. Finally, a scuffle with the law led to his imprisonment at a brutal youth detention center outside of Auburn, AL.
No one ever gave Lonnie Holley an art lesson. He had not previously been to a museum. He did not own a proper set of brushes or pens or an easel. He made art out of found objects – out of other people’s trash. Yet, despite his hard knock upbringing and makeshift materials, by the time Lonnie Bradley Holley reached thirty-one years of age his art was touring the world with an exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum.
Now sixty-four years old, Holley works in nearly any and every visual form and crafts pieces from literally any and every material he can scavenge. Most recently, Holley’s career has been given a dramatic boost, not through his visual art but because of his music. He as launched two albums in two years - Lonnie Holley: Just Before Music (2012) and Lonnie Holley: Keeping A Record Of It (2013).
No one ever gave Lonnie Holley a music lesson. He had not previously performed as a professional musician. He did not attend Julliard. He does not own a Steinway piano and does not actually know how to “properly” play the keyboards. Yet, as with his art, Holley has attracted massive attention.
In January 2014, Lonnie Holley was the subject of a feature article in The New York Times. In February, Holley spent a month as one of eight artists selected to participate in the Robert Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva Island, Florida. In March, he was back in Atlanta (which is now his home) doing a musical performance at the Hammonds House African-American Art Museum to raise funds for the completion of a documentary film that’s been 20-years in the making: The Lonnie Holley Story – by the filmmaker, George King. In early April he was performing at an opening event for an exhibition of his artwork at the Cash Rojas Gallery in Atlanta. Later in April, he was in New York to perform at The Studio Museum in Harlem in collaboration with musicians Will Glass and Dave Eggar. Holley is a man in demand.
At the Hammonds House event, many of the attendees had never met Holley in-person and some had never before heard of him. So, they may have been surprised by his presence: tall, lean and still boyish looking, Holley greets them openly with a handshake that holds his thumb up against his guest’s. “Thumbs up for mother universe,” Holley says to all that thrust their grip into his right hand. His left hand is covered with rings and his left arm adorned with a collection of bracelets. His right hand and arm are bare. Most noticeable, though, are Holley’s fingers. They are elongated, El Greco creations. All the better for sculpting metal wire into enchanted shapes or for rolling over the ebony keys of a fire engine red Nord Electro 2 keyboard.
During his Hammonds House performance, and a few weeks later at Cash Rojas Gallery, it appeared that Holley only played the black keys – providing caterwauling accompaniment for his improvised lyrics and hypnotic vocals. Black keys produce flats and sharps; notes that are a fitting representation of the ups and downs of Holley’s existence. Black keys also link Holley to gospel lessons of past and future. The future, Holley exhorts in song and paint, will be nothing if human beings don’t clean up our environment. The past, he chants, will educate us as long as we honor our ancestors. In Holley’s work, ancestral homage is universal but especially honors his own family, civil rights leaders and the enslaved Africans whose unrewarded labor built our country and whose music and art filled hearts. Whether intentional or not, playing the black keys helps to tell Holley’s story. Many of the pentatonic scales are found by running up the black keys on a piano. The pentatonic scales are the basis for many African-American folk, spiritual and gospel music and were, for a time in America’s history, known as the slave scales. There is nothing enslaved, though, about Lonnie Holley’s performances – his internal monologue is freed, released in an unselfconscious stream of conscious torrent set to music.
Freedom is the song that Lonnie Holley has been playing since his youth when, despite being temporarily detained by various overlords, he would not be contained. Holley knows, too, the power of words to empower or ensnare. With words and labels, too, Holley has defied capture. For a while, early in his art career, the terms folk, outsider, primitive, self-taught, vernacular and naïve are some of the words attached to Holley’s work – seeking to stuff his body of art into a tidy package. What is folk? Folk is a moniker that links art to the “common people” and rooted in the traditions of a bucolic past, largely untainted by popular culture. It is a descriptor that relegates certain art to a “lesser than” status compared to its find art brethren. Lonnie Holley’s artwork and music are as much about future as past – as experimental as they are ancestral. With song titles like “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants” how folksy can a song be? Who is an outsider? Outsiders are people who are mentally or physically detached from the activities of their surrounding society. Lonnie Holley regularly jams and records music with rock musicians like Cole Alexander from the Black Lips and Bradford Cox from Deerhunter among other indie-rock hipsters. The New York Times article proclaimed his most recent album, Keeping A Record Of It, “one of the best records of 2013.” Lonnie Holley is neither a folk nor outsider artist. Those chains won’t hold anymore. Lonnie Holley is an artist.
At the back of the Cash Rojas Gallery’s expansive concrete floor, Holley’s keyboard was positioned in front of a set of thirty silver conduit pipes running from floor to ceiling and then scattering across it in random direction. It appeared as a make shift pipe organ arranged just for Holley’s unique brand of keyboard conjuring. He sang emotional meditations that wove on-demand lyrics with soul wrenching, ghostly vocals and whistling and gravely, sputtering, Muddy Waters blues sounds. His topics spanned from Mother Universe to the earth under his feet, from his own mother, to the misfortune facing others, and from the materials he finds and reuses as art materiel to the responses he gets from musical performances. His head shook from side to side and his hands drew pictures in the air and over the keys like an impresario. His sounds filled every space in the room. His tone and intention penetrated the eyes and ears and minds of onlookers and dove into the art itself. Sound infused Holley’s artwork as he played. His pieces, some made of wheelbarrow and muffler and innertube and wire and bicycle and rock and wood, absorbed the vibrations right down to their Higgs Boson particles. His musical incantation brought the artwork to life and it sang back to him: an unseen, unheard – but felt - call and response of creator and created. Lonnie Holley’s art and music can certainly be appreciated as stand alone works. However it was in this creative jambalaya performance – where words, music, story, painting and sculpture merge – where Lonnie Holley’s “art” truly “is.” It is here where ART IS Lonnie Holley.
Andrew Dietz is a writer, entrepreneur, and art lover based in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also author of The Last Folk Hero: A True Story of Race and Art, Power and Profit which chronicles the interwoven stories of Lonnie Holley, Thornton Dial, The Quilters of Gee’s Bend and, their primary patron, Bill Arnett.