Above: At his workshop, Lonnie Holley transforms discarded and found items into works of art.Photos by Isadora Pennington.
Lonnie Holley paced back and forth in his Mechanicsville, Atlanta workshop, part of a one-time metal foundry used for working on trains. “To me, art is an offering,” he said. Something caught Holley’s eye—a small scrap of stained white rope and ripped red fabric laying nearby on the floor.
Inspired, Holley pointed out that the colors are patriotic and said that with a blue straw, he could turn it into a flag. In his hands, the scrap is transformed. He sees all of it as material with potential.
“Once we have realized what our capabilities are, it’s like we come to attention within ourselves, and we realize how great our offerings are to the values of brain-smithing,” Holley said. “Brain-smithing,” he explained, is when one “works the brain” at any idea.
Holley is originally from Alabama, one of 27 still living siblings. Growing up in a large, impoverished family in the Jim Crow era, he has faced plenty of struggles and strife. His initial foray into art came on the eve of one such tragedy. He crafted metal castings to produce tombstones for his sister’s two children who died in a house fire, and he hasn’t stopped creating ever since.
“Somehow or another we’ve got to take the bad things of life, or that which has been thrown away, and reconsider it and give it new value,” Holley said.
When he sees something that has been discarded, the wheels start spinning and he immediately sees artistic uses for the item. His folk art sculptures come together organically, with the design being born of both his vision and the available materials.
Many of Holley’s more well-known works feature faces in profile shaped from wire. His work can be seen in galleries and museums from Massachusetts to New Orleans, with several of his pieces on display as part of the permanent folk art collection of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. He has also been featured in books, movies and is widely regarded as one of the South’s pre-eminent folk artists still creating work today.
Holley explained how working diligently towards one’s purpose, in his case creating sculptural offerings out of found objects, is the utmost goal, and he quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spoken address to high school students in Philadelphia: “Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
His workspace is a massive one, with sculptures hanging from the rafters and protruding from boarded-up windows. In one window frame sits a sculpture made of a tangle of items. Holley outlined the concept behind it. Not a single thing was out of place, each scrap was incorporated with intent and consideration of the piece as a whole.
He explained that the tennis shoes, the musical instrument, the wine bottle, barbed wire, mechanical bits and all the wires, cords and string in the window were recovered after a series of storms. The piece—and the slave ship sculpture made of wire, string and a metal fence that sits in front of it—represent both physical and metaphorical storms and how we as humans weather them.
An upper level is reachable only by a ladder. A piano, a newspaper box, lawn figures, bowling pin and mannequins flank the open central space. Each item has a significance for Holley—if it hasn’t been used for an art piece yet, it will be.
“I find things that other people have thrown away,” he said, gesturing at the stacks of antiques and broken or discarded items scattered throughout the room. “But where is ‘away’? We say we ‘throw away’ something, but where is ‘away’?”
He laments the way that people deal with refuse, in particular by burying it in landfills and out at sea. Ultimately even our own bodies end up being wasted, in his eyes, through the process of embalming and entombed in a box, a concept which doesn’t sit right with Holley.
“What am I afraid of? One day all of this stuff is going to come crushing out,” he said. “We don’t see it because the water washes it away from the shoreline, and we don’t see it anymore. But that island of plastic and trash and materials floating on the ocean’s edge is because of that wash away.” Holley paused, looked around his space and remarked, “Everything in here could be washed away.”
At the open-air loading dock outside of his workshop, Holley gathered discarded items from a pile. He lined up the tangle of wire, metal and cement and, describing their merits, he began to build.
“It’s all about balance, you see,” Holley said as he bent wire with his calloused hands and assembled the pieces. For this sculpture he needed a strong base, so he found a bit of cement with protruding metal rods. He was only getting started, and it would be another day until the work of art was finished.