Happy birthday to Alabama artist Lonnie Holley, born February 10, 1950!
Holley was born in Birmingham during the Jim Crow-era, as the seventh of 27 children. His story, although dubious at times, is eccentric and heart wrenching: he says the woman who informally adopted him at birth traded him for a pint of whiskey when he was four. After that, his adventures cover a wide range: from working at a drive-in theater and later as a short-order cook at Disney World; to getting hit by a car and declared brain dead; to fathering the first of his 15 children, at the age of 15.
His hectic life didn’t include art until he was 29. When two of his nieces died in a house fire, he felt they deserved tombstones, but the family was too poor to buy them. Birmingham steel foundries regularly threw out stone linings from molds, so Holley used kitchen tools to carve the discarded material into headstones for the two girls. Through this, he discovered his passion.
The Birmingham Museum of Art was the first to display Holley’s pieces when he brought them to the director two years later in 1981. This led to two of his works being featured in a National Museum of Art exhibition, and eventually being displayed in museums such as the High Museum of Art and the American Folk Art Museum.
Holley, who now lives and works in Atlanta, uses found objects and recycled materials to create sculptures and other works of art that refuse to be categorized and are as unique as their maker. He has come to be one of the leaders in a movement with various names including self-taught, outsider, vernacular and folk art, a style that includes other Alabama natives such as Thornton Dial, who passed away in January.
Experience Holley’s work for yourself in the contemporary gallery of the Museum, where Hungry Man’s Cross (2006) is currently on view.