Arts feature: Lonnie Holley demonstrates how life's twists and turns can take an art form

By Hannah Douglas
From the October 17, 2013 edition

When Lonnie Holley's sister lost two of her children to a house fire, the family couldn't afford tombstones. So, instead Holley found a way to make them. Using sandstone pieces he found in a ditch near a foundry by another sister's house and tools in his grandfather's basement, he created the grave markers. And even though he didn't realize it at the time, it would be an artful turn of events.

“Those pieces actually started my career in the arts, and I didn't know what art was,” Holley said in a phone interview from Atlanta, where he now lives.

Holley, a self-taught artist from Birmingham, is the 7th of 27 children with a heart-wrenching history of growing up in abject poverty in the South, where he learned to locate items for use that others had discarded in creeks and sewers.

“I think my upbringing … experiences that I went through have become more of a foundation for inspiration for me,” Holley said.

With his keyboard lamentations and his reverent, organically emerging vocals that reflect on memories and at times sound other-worldly, Holley will perform at the Wexner Center Friday.

Holley is known for his carefully constructed creations and sculptures, and he recently has been assembling a soulful presentation of music. Although, he said he's been experimenting with sound for years, and the two art forms go together like "twins." He released his latest album Keeping a Record of It on the Dust-to-Digital label this year, and his debut album, Just Before Music in 2012.

Duff Lindsay, owner of the Lindsay Gallery in the Short North, which will host some of Holley’s artwork, said Holley's visit is a “big deal.” In his world, as big as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. He describing Holley as a “force of nature.”

“Nobody needed to teach Lonnie how to play music,” Lindsay said. “Lonnie plays the keyboard but Lonnie doesn't know how to play the keyboard. Lonnie uses the keyboard as a tool in the same way that he uses things that he finds at the dump as art materials.”

Holley is co-headlining the Wexner with Columbus electronic composer Brian Harnetty. And perhaps in the same way Lonnie uses his sense of sight to create his pieces, Harnetty thoughtfully listens to select sounds.

“What I like is exploring these very large archives and finding the things that resonate for me and then creating something new with it that both looks forward and back to the past,” Harnetty said. “So that it has all of these layers of history, meaning and context but also points it in a new direction.”

For his new project The Star-Faced One, Harnetty received access to hundreds of hours of works from the jazz legend Sun Ra via the Sun Ra/El Saturn Archives of Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio. Employing an ensemble of musicians, he brought forward his own interpretation of the material that is intriguing, thought-provoking and takes listeners on a trip in time.

Holley has actually been compared to Sun Ra, though he said he has never really listened to the artist.

Holley, who now has 15 children of his own, often remarks on events in his life while on tour, and he said keeping a record is about reflecting on our memories, our interactions with others, and even in hardship, honoring those times.

“That's what I try to do,” Holley said. “I tell people … celebrate that you are still living to tell the story.”