Lonnie Holley was born on February 10, 1950 in Birmingham, Alabama. From the age of five, Holley worked various jobs: picking up trash at a drive-in movie theatre, washing dishes, and cooking at Disney World. As a child, he lived in a whiskey house across from the state fairgrounds, a state run juvenile home, and finally was reunited with his natural born family at the age of 14. 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. His work is now in collections of major museums throughout the country, on permanent display in the United Nations, and been displayed in the White House Rose Garden. In January of 2014, Holley completed a one-month artist-in-residence with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva Island, Florida, site of the acclaimed artist’s studio.
Holley did not start making and performing music in a studio nor does his creative process mirror that of the typical musician. His music and lyrics are improvised on the spot and morph and evolve with every event, concert, and recording. In Holley’s original art environment, he would construct and deconstruct his visual works, repurposing their elements for new pieces. This often led to the transfer of individual narratives into the new work creating a cumulative composite image that has depth and purpose beyond its original singular meaning. The layers of sound in Holley’s music, likewise, are the result of decades of evolving experimentation.
Holley’s music caught the attention of Matt Arnett, whose father has been Holley’s primary art patron since the 1980s. In 2006, Matt organized the first professional recordings of Holley’s music. In 2010, Arnett set up a performance by Holley at Grocery on Home. One of the people in attendance was Lance Ledbetter, founder and owner of the record label Dust-to-Digital. Deeply moved by Holley’s keyboard playing and singing, Ledbetter signed Holley to his record label. Soon after, Holley found himself in the studio again, and in 2010 and 2011, a number of studio sessions ensued. The result was the album “Just Before Music.” More recordings are continuing to be made to celebrate and to document one of America’s most compelling musicians. In 2013, “Keeping a Record of It,” Holley’s second record was released. In early 2014, Holley recorded again with Richard Swift, acclaimed musician and producer at his studio, National Freedom, in Cottage Grove, Oregon.
In addition to the studio sessions, Holley began touring as a musician. In August and September of 2013, Holley toured the West Coast with Deerhunter. That tour was followed by a tour of the East Coast with Bill Callahan, and in November and December of 2013, Holley had his first tour through Western Europe (Spain, Portugal, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, The Netherlands, England, and France). Holley has been joined on stage by a variety of musicians, including members of Deerhunter, Black Lips, The War on Drugs, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, Gang Gang Dance, Julia Holter, Megafaun, as well as Ben Sollee, Steve Gunn, Jim White, Sinkane, Stevie Nistor, Jenny Hval, Marshall Ruffin, Daniel Lanois, Brian Blade, Mammane Sani, and Bill Callahan. In 2013, Holley’s first records were named to a number of critics’ Top Records of the Year lists, including The Washington Post (#4) and The Chicago Sun Times (#2).
In 2014, Holley continued to tour, completing another tour of Europe (Belgium, Norway, England, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France) and a USA/Canada tour with Daniel Lanois. Also in 2014, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that they had acquired three sculptures by the acclaimed artist and musician.
His visual art has been displayed in numerous museums and galleries around the United States. In the late summer, 2015, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art opened Lonnie Holley: Something to Take My Place, accompanied by the first significant monograph of the artist’s work.
In 2015, Holley recorded music for the film Five Nights in Maine (David Oyelowo, Diane Wiest, Rosie Perez), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has its theatrical release in the summer of 2016.
Holley continues to make visual art and music. He is based in Atlanta, Georgia.