Born of struggle and a Dickensian childhood, Lonnie Holley's work is not Nashville's typical public art

Public Outsider

By LAURA HUTSON @HUTSONLAURA

A few months ago, a rock sat in the middle of a blink-and-you-miss-it strip of green space along Charlotte Avenue between 16th and 17th avenues. The rock's engraving called the green space a park, and said it was dedicated to the memory of artist William Edmondson, approximating his birth at about 1883, and his death in 1951. Edmondson, a sculptor, made playful, rounded carvings from sandstone; in 1937, he became the first African-American artist to be given a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Many consider him the greatest artist ever to call Nashville home — one reason his name now adorns one of the first parks in the city to focus primarily on commissioned public art.

Several weeks ago, a crew of landscapers and art handlers moved into block-long Edmondson Park, surrounding the marker with broken column relics from the Parthenon, laying down rubber track like a swirl of Yellow Brick Road, and adding small hills and shallow valleys throughout. On one side of the Edmondson marker now stands a jagged metal structure by acclaimed Alabama-based artist Thornton Dial. Nearby is Bell Buckle, Tenn., artist Sherri Warner Hunter's "The Gathering" — three clay and tile mosaic figures, a bluebird resting peacefully on one's shoulders.

On the far corner of the green strip, directly in view of the Nashville skyline, is a spiny steel structure cradling a large boulder. The sculptor of this work is Lonnie Holley, and this is the first large-scale public work he has ever created. This blazing July afternoon, Holley eyes the giant sculpture he's created — a 14-foot-tall piece whose three legs cross each other to create a teepee-like nest, as well as a shelter for a similar boulder beneath.

The shape is familiar to those who've visited the undeveloped lot in Atlanta that Holley treats as a studio — a place he calls his "environment." But there, as here, it isn't what people are accustomed to thinking of as public art. Back home in Georgia, Holley says, suspicious neighbors have even wondered aloud whether he's performing voodoo.

The artist is quick to dismiss that charge with a gentle shrug, like someone who's dealt with prejudice and misunderstandings his whole life. But there's something to that accusation: Holley is indeed a kind of magician. Just maybe not the kind his neighbors — or Nashvillians — expect.

Driving Lonnie Holley around downtown Atlanta is like a quest with an extremely creative knight. At every corner is a potential story, hidden from most but clear as day to Holley, an expert at building something from nothing. As readily as a scrapyard Michelangelo, he picks apart pieces until he's left with a single sculptural relic that can distill a story to its essence.

"Pull over here," he says, and we stop in a recycling plant just around the corner from the Souls Grown Deep warehouse, the storage facility for the foundation that represents Holley. The plant is stacked high with colorful cardboard scraps that have been flattened and bundled together. They resemble either haybales or soft Mike Kelley sculptures, depending on your reference point. Holley's lies somewhere between.

"Look at this!" he exclaims, with a schoolteacher's earnest excitement. It's early May, and the sun shines so brightly on the stacks that Holley flips down his sunglasses, reflective aviators that he asks people to see themselves in when he's having a conversation. He finds an old issue of Life magazine commemorating the World Trade Center on its cover. It's in near-perfect condition.

Holley opens to a photo spread of Ground Zero soon after the 9/11 attacks. He holds it open in one hand with a few rusted metal parts and a flower he'd just picked tucked under his finger, and he asks me — tells me, really, as if he has my best interest in mind — to take a picture.

Just like that, Holley transforms trash into his own kind of art — a no-frills spiritual exercise that's simple enough to take you by surprise, but might also make you rethink how you see things every day. Among the rusted detritus, sometimes there's a flower. Everything is personal in Holley's world.

"The whole thing about me," he says, getting back into the car, "as far as working with people, is I have an interest in doing more for others, in a sense, than I do for myself. I think that all started, really, when I was a little boy."

Holley was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1950 — a year before Edmondson died — to Dorothy May Holley Crawford and Arthur James Bradley. He was his mother's seventh child, and even though he would eventually count 27 brothers and sisters among his mother's offspring, she already had more than she could handle.

"See, my mother had just had a baby the year before I was born," Holley explains, "and I was born no more than 10 months later. So that would have meant she had two babies on the breasts."

As a result, Holley was separated from his mother as a baby and lived with another woman in Ohio until he was a toddler. The woman was an alcoholic, however, and when she brought Holley back to Alabama, she sold him at age 4 for a pint of whiskey. The woman at the other end of that deal — the third person Holley had known as mother — was called "Big Mama."

Holley lived with her and a man he knew as "Big Daddy," who was often gone for days at a time. One day when he was 7, he walked into Big Mama's room where he found her in bed, unmoving. He couldn't wake her, and Big Daddy wasn't around. So he continued to bring her food every day and wait for her to wake up to eat it.

It would be three days before Big Daddy returned. When he saw Big Mama's corpse, he took out his anger and grief on the nearest person at hand: the bewildered boy. Holley remembers this event with stark poignancy in a 1995 essay called "The Best That Almost Happened."

"He was running and shouting," Holley says, "and he was screaming, 'She's dead, she's dead,' and I'd never even heard that word. And then he came out fussing at me, how come I didn't let somebody know she was dead. So I got punished for not knowing what death was, and I got a whipping, and didn't know how to handle that. And I was sad. He had the radio playing. And he had this record on: 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, coming for to carry me home.' "

Big Daddy doled out beatings for years after. At one point Holley tried so desperately to escape that in his flight he was hit by a car. That brought a three-month hospital stay. To help make ends meet — and to get away from his default father — Holley began working at an extremely young age, picking up paper from the Alabama state fairgrounds. He does not describe these experiences as calamities. They formed him.

"All of my young life," he says, "has led up to my life as an artist today. What I've learned to do is understand materials. I call it materials, not 'trash,' 'garbage' or 'junk.' See that right there?" he asks, motioning to a scrap of roadside refuse so nondescript it can't be readily identified. "That's not trash. I look at that as a piece of material that needs to be examined."

It's not difficult to see how a young man abandoned by three mothers in seven years would learn to see the value in things other people throw away. What is surprising, though, is how effectively Holley can transfix others into seeing things through his viewpoint, even for a moment.

At an event in March at the Oasis Center, an organization providing services for at-risk youth that's just across the street from where his sculpture currently stands, Holley led a series of art-making projects with several schoolchildren. Some weren't much older than he was when dealing with Big Daddy was a daily struggle.

He instructed each of them to wrap wire around one branch of a makeshift metal tree, as the first step in an assemblage they'd spend the whole day completing. Both Holley and the schoolchildren exhibited immense amounts of patience, but all had their limits. One teenager approached the rusted trunk and flimsy wire with the aloofness typical of many people his age. Holley stopped him.

"Listen here, you've got to see the wire you're working with," Holley told him, his fingers stacked with as many rings as would fit. He repeated himself to the class as a whole. "Always be looking, always see what's going on around you," he said, his own eyes scanning their faces.

The kids were visibly shaken to attention. The resulting sculpture the students created with Holley's help is made from discarded bicycle parts. It's a short piece with rusted bike pedals, wheels, an old flip-flop — even a hand-lettered plaque describing it as a memorial to all bicycle riders who've come before.

"What I wanted to give them was an idea of not only my knowledge on bikes and of riding a bike, but of people all over the world who ride bikes," Holley says over coffee the next day. "I came to a conclusion of saying that everybody who's ridden bikes and maybe passed away, this piece should honor their spirit. I wanted them to feel very serious about what they were doing, because I was also playing with words and using some material as my example."

Now on view inside the Oasis Center's bike workshop, the sculpture remains as a reminder to pay attention to what's in front of you, listen and watch and be aware. But no matter your age, it's difficult to overlook the intricacy and care the piece exudes, and the careful scrutiny Holley gives his surroundings.

That convergence of the old and the young — the past and the future — is what the Metro Nashville Arts Commission is banking on with its Edmondson Park project. Jen Cole, the commission's executive director, has a lot of faith in Holley's educational artmaking practice. After receiving a $25,000 NEA grant to install a piece of public art in the revamped Edmondson Park, under the guidance of councilman and former Oasis Center CEO Ronnie Steine, Metro approached both Holley and Thornton Dial about the project, hoping one would be interested. Both said yes.

"That happens once in a career lifetime," Cole says, "that two artists of that caliber are available at the same time, interested at the same time, and really want to figure out how to make it work, both in terms of time and budget."

Adding two artists, as well as landscaping and other expenses, made the NEA grant only a fraction of the park's overall cost, which is estimated to be in excess of $150,000 — funds drawn from both state and local entities. But if it has the transformative effect Metro envisions — as a community front porch that spurs creativity, pride and public engagement in the Charlotte Avenue neighborhood — its organizers will consider the money well spent. Cole credits the idea for the park to Councilman Steine, who tells the Scene the idea was planted on a drive by the Charlotte Avenue greenspace five years ago.

"The genesis of all this," Steine says, "was the Oasis Center's collaboration with STARS to create the Youth Opportunity Center." At that juncture in 2009, the center moved from its previous location on Music Row to the Charlotte Avenue location. "For the 35th anniversary of Oasis Center, we commissioned 'The Gathering,' which was in front of Oasis Center on Music Row." That sculpture was once installed in front of Oasis Center on its location on Music Row, but since the 2009 move, it has sat collecting dust in storage.

"It became clear that we needed a new home for 'The Gathering,' " Steine says. "Even though I'd driven by it probably a hundred million times, I became aware of that little strip of grass, and noticed it was dedicated to William Edmondson. And a lightbulb went on that indeed this was an opportunity to really mesh Nashville's past, present and future together in a tiny little piece of land on Charlotte Avenue."

Steine calls Edmondson Park the perfect project for Nashville, and notes that it's the city's only piece of land solely dedicated to the arts.

"Charlotte Avenue is growing," he says, "and will be the equivalent of the 12South neighborhood in the next five or so years. So having this little — pardon the pun — oasis of green space here, I think, will grow in its affection."

Cole believes not only in Holley's artistic practice but also his ability to bring a conversation about race and class into the public realm.

"I think it's one of the important things that we wanted to have a conversation about," Cole says. "That [racial] divide is ever-present in that neighborhood, and that neighborhood is changing and evolving. And I think it was very important to us to have artists who've had that struggle in their own work, and who could reflect that in a neighborhood context.

"And I think one of the reasons we were so intrigued by this project is because we could give a permanent canvas to two well-known artists who do struggle with this in their work — who do beautiful but very hard subjects sometimes — and to allow them to do that in the public context in a neighborhood that is in some ways a reflection of their personal struggle."

Holley's struggle didn't stop at childhood. To escape Big Daddy, he wrapped himself in a couple of quilts he found hanging on an old lady's fence, jumped a train, and ran away. He moved around a lot, was in and out of juvenile detention facilities, and was only able to complete the seventh grade.

As a man, Holley has fathered 15 children of his own. He didn't understand the difficult conditions his mother and family lived in until he was grown.

"My mama and them were still living in the 1800s, with slop jars, and outdoor bathrooms, and no running water, and pigs in the house," he says in his 1995 essay. He quickly "turned his mind around" to his family's way of living. He used buckets instead of bathrooms, and got used to covering up in plastic whenever it rained.

Hard living informs much of Holley's artwork, in ways his audience may not always understand. When someone has used plastic sheets to fend off cold and sickness, wrapping an artwork in plastic takes on new meaning. Other works might be all but inscrutable to art patrons, yet familiar to those who've come from backgrounds similar to the artist's. One Holley piece consists of a section of old terra-cotta pipe filled with a worn-out golf club and a few ancient-looking wooden bats. Ask Holley about the hard-to-parse sculpture, and he'll tell you: It was taken from beside the door of a deceased neighbor's home, physically unaltered. The meaning is in its title: "Protecting Myself the Best I Can."

"Because of death," Holley says, "a lot of people can get to mourning, they get to crying and weeping, and they get to being down so much they can't hardly think. We need to accept that death is in life. Do it like the military have to be taught to do it; do it like how Grandpap have to be taught to do it in World War I. You are going to be in the midst of the dead; the dead will cover you sometimes. What you have to do is come out from under the dead, rise up to be the living, go on to do the giving."

Holley's art career began much the same as Edmondson Park's namesake, who honed his skills early on by carving sandstone tombstones. The occasion was not opportunity but tragedy. A house fire in 1979 claimed the lives of Holley's niece Freeda, age 1½, and his nephew Maurice, 8.

"Everybody was crying," Holley remembers. "My sister Bunny had let them stay over at another lady's house, and the house caught on fire and the kids burned up in the fire. That was the first real family loss that I had to deal with, the first real tragedy. You can just think, a baby being burnt? Completely, to death? No open coffin? This threw everybody for a loop.

"My sister Bunny was falling out, we didn't have money, our family was poor ..." For the first and only time in several interviews with the Scene, he stops himself.

"Wait, can I rephrase that? Our family was very, very rich, but we didn't have no money."

Bunny couldn't afford to buy markers for her children's graves. So Holley carved them for her out of sandstone. For years, Holley made sandstone carvings for the graves of people in his community. He became known as The Sandman.

It seems a startling coincidence that William Edmondson began his art career in Nashville in exactly the same way. Even years later, walking through a Tennessee State Museum exhibit that features some of Edmondson's sandstone creations, Holley views them with a sense of kinship.

"See that, right there?" Holley says, his voice all but hushed. "Mr. Edmondson had to hold the stone really hard to do that."

But back in 1979, any similarity to Edmondson was completely unknown to Holley, who wouldn't be introduced to the artist — and the art world in general — until he met a wealthy art dealer from Georgia named William Arnett.

Bill Arnett is the foremost collector of self-taught African-American artists in the South; he speaks with a thick Georgia drawl and a sharp, dry wit. Arnett spent years collecting art from ancient China, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, among other places, before he became convinced that the so-called folk art of the American South was a significant chapter in international art history. Before it disappeared, he believed, it was crucial to record it and document its importance.

Arnett had an eye for the kind of castaway assemblages Holley was making. He remembers photographing a particular work of Holley's in the mid-1980s during one of their first encounters.

"I had seen his work, but it was mostly sandstones‚" he recalls. "That's what people had, and that's what they showed me. But I wasn't interested in sandstones — I thought they were beautiful, but it wasn't what I was mostly interested in."

But when he went to Holley's yard he saw "Dish of the Receiver," an immense television set Holley had hoisted upside-down in the center of a round wooden disc. This was the kind of work Holley had been creating since he was a young scrap collector — a Southern vernacular take on conceptual art. But most of his neighbors didn't see any value in the works, and so Holley kept them tucked away.

"The art," Arnett says of Holley's brand of artmaking, "in order to survive, has to be disguised. It couldn't be pictorial — they couldn't paint a big picture of a black man hanging and white people standing around laughing about it." Instead, artists like Holley would create a found-object sculpture that symbolized hanging without being a direct pictorial representation.

"Lonnie had filled up a whole hillside," Arnett says, looking at Holley for clarification. "Two acres," remembers Holley.

"I hear people say a lot that this kind of art is the equivalent of the blues or jazz," Arnett says, with the casual directness of a collector who's confident about his investments. "Well, yeah, there's a lot of elements of the blues in it, and there's a lot of elements of jazz in it. But this kind of art predated the blues and jazz — this kind of art was probably the first kind of self-expression of black people in the Western Hemisphere. When the first slaves arrived, that's when this kind of art began. And Lonnie, as it turned out, was the one person who was actually making objects in the old tradition."

But not to sell, clarifies Arnett quickly — perhaps so used to this particular line of inquiry and assumption that he's quick to point it out before it even arises.

"When I met him, he'd never sold one of those," he explains. "People bought his sandstones, and they bought some of his paintings, but they never bought his found-object sculptures." Arnett became Holley's most ardent champion and collector, convinced of his talent.

"Of all the things I've collected," he says, "Lonnie's work was the most important."

In Arnett's passion, however, others read opportunism. In 1993, Morley Safer visited Arnett for a profile on 60 Minutes, and the resulting segment seemed to portray the artists he represents as something like art-world Uncle Toms. The interview was devastating to both the artists and their patron. A defensiveness still lingers in the way Arnett speaks, which always includes a lot of context and much clarification, so there's little room for interpretation. He's quick to correct you, for example, if you call the roster of artists he finances "his" artists.

He takes those semantic distinctions so seriously, however, that it seems to illustrate the respect the two men have for each other.

"White people would say, 'He's just throwing junk together and laughing all the way to the bank.' Well, people say that about a lot of artists," Arnett says, citing Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. "And Lonnie wasn't laughing all the way to the bank because he never sold anything. What's to laugh about? He's trying to feed his children in any way he could, but he never sold any of those. And maybe he would have, but nobody wanted them.

"And they still don't, ironically, except when we put photographs of them in these books," he says, motioning toward the two-volume set of books he'd published on the Souls Grown Deep artists. "Then they'd want to have the thing in the photograph because it had been in books."

The problem with Holley's artwork, he says, "is that people who collected so-called folk art, whatever that means, most of them were looking for things that looked a certain way. Kind of naive and primitive. Like maybe a 10-year-old with good motor skills had made them. Lonnie's found-object sculptures were as sophisticated then and now as anything in American art history.

"I knew women who were 75 years old who were making things in their yard that if they had been white Dutch artists in Amsterdam, they'd be world-famous. That's just the story of art in history — that people that come along in a culture that people don't recognize, like Lonnie, that are in every possible way as important to American culture and as influential as anybody, they get ignored."

If anyone's ignoring Holley now, you wouldn't know it from the excitement his installation is causing long before its public unveiling next week. The Charlotte Avenue project has galvanized arts organizations and educators across Nashville. "Once we announced that Thornton and Lonnie were involved in Edmondson Park project," Cole says, "people got very excited." The result is a citywide cross-institutional celebration of art.

It starts with Cheekwood, which has the largest collection of Edmondson's work in the U.S. The museum indicated to Cole that it would be interested in hosting an Edmondson show featuring Dial and Holley works as well. The exhibit, which opens in September, is called William Edmondson and Friends: Breaking the Mold, and will feature selections from its collection alongside contemporary artists such as Sylvia Hyman, Red Grooms and Alan LeQuire.

The Arts Company, whose director Anne Brown has long represented Dial and Holley in Nashville, will be showing affordable works on paper Holley made in a media that's brand-new for the artist — aquatint and intaglio printmaking. One of the prints currently hanging on the downtown gallery walls is 2014's "Our Journey," which shows a ship at sea in black-and-white. The rough waters are a result of photo processing, the ship's sails an imprint of twine and sticks.

But even institutions outside the art world are seeing the value in Holley's work. The Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation at Lipscomb University has worked with Metro to create a public school curriculum that incorporates Edmondson and Holley into middle and high school studies. It uses the art at Edmondson Park to teach everything from science and math to language arts.

The lesson plans are rigorous, and the evaluation rubrics are finely detailed. The middle school art curriculum, which draws entirely from the art of Edmondson and Holley, asks students to compare and contrast the work of the two. Questions follow about art-making, time and how a piece of art can reflect human culture. It even asks students to explain why Holley's work is — or isn't — art.

Yet art is only one tributary of Holley's interests. As a musician, he has recorded two full-length albums on the Atlanta label Dust-to-Digital, and he performed at Britain's All Tomorrow's Parties fest last year and Knoxville's Big Ears Festival in March. After the dedication of his Edmondson Park sculpture he'll tour through Europe, playing Denmark's Aarhus Festival and the Into the Great Wide Open fest in the Netherlands, among others.

Holley began recording his own music in 2012. True to his nature, he approaches music-making in much the same way as he approaches art-making — as an assemblage of meaningful scraps. Equal parts noise and soul, Holley's music is largely unclassifiable. He says it comes to him in ideas like a ripple.

"Once you throw it into the water," he says, "it starts to make a big wave. Sound is waves, so are thoughts, and the depths from where we're drawing from should be recognized." But the process is similar to the way he makes art, he explains: "I'm taking pieces of different types of conversation and piecing them together."

In creating his musical patchworks, he has worked with everyone from Bill Callahan to members of The Shins. One of his most recent collaborators is Nashville performance poet Minton Sparks. During one of Holley's recent local stays, she met him for the first time. Hours later, driven by his infectious enthusiasm, the two were recording improvised tracks at Sparks' studio. Particularly memorable is "A Dime in My Shoe," inspired by something as prosaic as the coin Sparks found in her shoe that morning.

As Sparks tunes in to Holley's earthbound yet spacy groove, the song becomes an ode to unrequited love, with the poet proclaiming, "I've got a dime in my shoe for you." It ends with the couple at the gates of the Grand Ole Opry begging to get inside. When they're denied, Sparks turns manic and is shot by a guard. Holley's voice, a slow stream of "baby" repeated in minor-key agony, trails off, and the song is over.

Sparks later said she considers her life changed as a result of meeting Lonnie Holley.

Still, it's as an artist that Holley is gathering the most attention. Earlier this summer in New York's The Studio Museum in Harlem, Holley was included in an exhibit of Southern artists called When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South. Among works by some of the most influential contemporary artists working today, such as Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker and Trenton Doyle Hancock — as well as Holley's Edmondson Park colleague Thornton Dial — Holley's piece stood out.

The work was a 1994 assemblage called "Blown Out Black Mama's Belly," and it stretched across the floor of the museum's upper room. The majority of the piece is made from a large section of inner tube that curls around its edges like rubber lace; a loose rope made from twisted rags and brightly colored ribbons is tied to its end.

If you paid close attention, you could count 27 pieces of unique clothing among the tattered fabric relics — a reference to the number of children his mother birthed. The sculpture represented Holley's own mother, someone he admired for her strength in the face of adversity. The work was secured midway up the wall by thin ropes that recalled the shapes of both a head and a noose. The rest collapsed out onto the floor like a person slumped over, her insides spilling into the shared museum space.

The 2-acre yard Bill Arnett was so delighted to discover was destroyed by the city of Birmingham in 1997. The lot Lonnie Holley now keeps in Atlanta is a fraction of its size. It's scattered with Mello Yello bottles perched to catch the sunlight, rusted wires that reference faces, ropes and discarded clothes and bottles filled with multicolored water — all evidence of life that he's organized with an archaeologist's care. There's even a face he drew on a paper plate that he ate lunch from the day before.

Near the back is a collection of branches that are stacked, teepee-like, to hold a hanging ball of tightly bound plastic. Months later, a visitor would see the same shape near Charlotte Avenue, but it would be sculpted in 14 feet of steel. Visions, memories, ideas — the installation at Edmondson Park stands as proof that Lonnie Holley wastes nothing.

"Moving into the future," Holley says in his Atlanta yard, "a lot of people think things have gotten old and obsolete. But they're not old and obsolete. We have them in our brain. We nurture it. And thought is the greatest nourishment that humans can have. Think about it. If someone tells you something, you might ask them to give you some time. Give me some time to go back into my my mental library and research.

"For me, I'm turning all the roots upside-down. So give me some time to go into my brain, turn back the pages of all those National Geographics, of all those encyclopedias, of all those times of looking at the world, of all the flights I've taken. Give me some time. And then I can tell you:

"I just want to be your tumbleweed."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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