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Lonnie Holley

American, 20th century.
Born 1950, Birmingham, Alabama.


Lonnie Bradley Holley was born on February 10, 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama. From the age of 5, Holley worked various jobs, picking up trash at a drive-in movie theatre, washing dishes, and cooking. He lived in a whiskey house, on the state-fair grounds, and in several foster homes. His early life was chaotic and Holley was never afforded the pleasure of a real childhood.

Since 1979, Holley has devoted his life to the practice of improvisational creativity. His art and music, born out of struggle, hardship, but perhaps more importantly, out of furious curiosity and biological necessity, has manifested itself in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and sound. Holley’s sculptures are constructed from found materials in the oldest tradition of African American sculpture. Objects, already imbued with cultural and artistic metaphor, are combined into narrative sculptures that commemorate places, people, and events.

By the early 1980s, Holley had created an immersive environment in his yard near the Birmingham Airport. Filled with Holley’s sculpture, the yard served as the artist’s studio, gallery, and historical record. In 1996, Holley was notified that his property would be condemned to accommodate the expansion of the airport. Holley settled with the city and moved to a property in Harpersville, Alabama, but his environment was destroyed in the process.

In 2010, Holley moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Shortly thereafter, in 2012, Dust-to-Digital released Just Before Music, Holley’s first studio album, launching an ambitious music career for the artist. Holley has performed his music at the Whitney Museum of American Art but also in music halls, bars, and theatres all over the United States and Europe. Holley approaches art and music in the same manner: improvising, inventing, and re-inventing artworks and songs using the materials at hand. His capacity for musical and artistic innovation is seemingly endless and equally hard to define.

- Phillip March Jones


Selected Exhibitions

2014, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, Studio Museum of Harlem, New York

2013, Lonnie Holley: Keeping You Out of Harm's Way, James Fuentes Gallery, New York

2004, Lonnie Holley: A Twenty-Five Year Survey, Do We Think Too Much? I Don’t Think We Can Ever Stop, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL

1983, Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA (traveling exhibition)

1981, More Than Land and Sky: Art from Appalacia, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (traveling exhibition)

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
Milwaukee Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
New Jersey State Museum, Trenton, NJ
New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, LA
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA
Smithsonian American Museum of Art, Washington, DC

Selected Bibliography

Lax, Thomas J., When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, exhibition catalogue, The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2014.

Doran, Anne, "Lonnie Holley at James Fuentes," Art in America, December 11, 2013.

Southall, Thomas, Michael Stanley, Lonnie Holley and Gail Trechsel, Lonnie Holley: Do We Think Too Much? I Don't Think We Can Ever Stop, exhibition catalogue, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, 2004.

Souls Grown Deep: Volumes 1 and 2, ed. William and Paul Arnett, Tinwood Books, 2000 & 2001. 


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