In his elaborately discursive way, Lonnie Holley is telling me about the first time he set foot on Orford Ness, a 10-mile-long shingle spit on the Suffolk coast earlier this year. Now a protected nature reserve, it is an austere, windblown landscape of deserted roads and the shells of military buildings, the residue of its former use as a military testing site during the first and second world wars.
“Stepping off the boat and walking over the levee to encounter all these strange structures, my brain was taking me all over the place,” he says, his eyes widening at the memory. “I’ve always wandered deep into ruins, but this was something different. I could feel the energy. I could feel it.”
What was it he felt, exactly? His brow furrows and he stares intently at me. “All the workers that cried when they were working out there. They wanted to go home so bad, they cried. They didn’t want to be there, but they knew they had a job to do. I could feel that, and it kind of scared me.”
Holley, a 72-year-old self-taught American artist and musician, spent several weeks in rural Suffolk in February, having been commissioned by Artangel, an organisation that specialises in often ambitious site-specific artworks, to create a song cycle inspired by the landscape of Orford Ness. On one of his visits he composed and performed a piece called I Built a Trigger, But I Didn’t Pull It. Like all his songs, it was improvised on the spot and possesses a raw, soulful intensity that has much to do with the plaintive grain of his voice and the incantatory nature of his delivery.
When I ask him about the title, he says: “The workers who knew how to create the weapons were the experts, they didn’t pull the triggers. It all went from hand to hand, from a lower to a higher command, and then finally the trigger was pulled. That’s how it goes and, right now, we are so far ahead of ourselves with digital triggers that can rain down missiles from far away. We’re so busy playing at future dwellers, we don’t have the time to look back at history in order to learn what it was that has allowed everything to become what it is.”
Like his art, Holley’s conversation does not adhere to conventional rules of form and structure, tending instead towards the abstract and tangential. “Lonnie’s concentration is wayward and his thoughts are associative,” says Artangel’s Michael Morris. “He is not disciplined in the way we expect artists to be, but that does not mean his art is undisciplined. In a way, his art is his training, because he is constantly working things through. It’s performative, but there is nothing contrived about it, which is very rare.”
Holley has been variously described as an “outsider artist”, a “folk” artist, a shaman and a visionary. His sculptures, fashioned from metal, wire, wood, concrete and all manner of discarded objects, seem to place him in a lineage of compulsive creative otherness that includes fellow Alabamans Bill Traylor and Sister Gertrude Morgan. Musically, he has been compared to late performers like the troubled Daniel Johnston, whose songs often possess a childlike purity of expression, and RL Burnside, a “primitive” blues singer whose wild, wayward life echoed through his raucous music. None of these comparisons quite work, though, not least because, whether composing songs on the spot or making art from what he calls “other folk’s trash, garbage and debris”, Holley seems to exist in a state of constant creative spontaneity.
“One of the most extraordinary things about Lonnie is that he is entirely in the present tense all of the time,” says Morris. “It is quite an incredible thing to witness him perform, not least because he cannot do a song twice. It’s one take and that’s it.” Later, when I ask Matt Arnett, Holley’s manager and longtime friend, if a forthcoming London performance by Holley will feature the songs he created out on the shingle at Orford Ness, he replies: “I have no idea what will happen on the night, because every live show that Lonnie does is a unique thing that exists only in that moment. What I can tell you is that it will be a tightrope walk, because it always is.”
The performance in question will launch both Artangel’s online film, The Edge of What, in which Holley performs five songs at different locations on Orford Ness, and an exhibition of his recent paintings and sculptures, The Growth of Communication, at the Edel Assanti gallery in London. Both events attest to Lonnie Holley’s unlikely journey from the margins to the mainstream of the art world.
On the day I meet with him, he has just finished filming on Orford Ness and is sitting quietly in a vast barn-cum-studio, which has been his base for several weeks. He is surrounded by his work, elaborate assemblages and abstract paintings. Most of them have been transported from Atlanta, Georgia, where he is now based, but some, he tells me, were made from materials he gathered in Suffolk and on a previous sojourn in Margate. Around his feet are scattered several bags and boxes of raw materials – electrical wires, coloured ribbons, driftwood, pieces of plastic and tin, strips of fabric and mesh, and even a small selection of pulled-up plants and roots. “That’s my background material,” he says.
Dressed in a striped work shirt, paint-spattered trousers, a long scarf and a brightly coloured woolly hat, Holley resembles a Rastafarian elder, albeit one possessed of an innocent, almost childlike, sense of wonder at the world and his unlikely place in it. Initially, he seems quiet and withdrawn, perhaps exhausted from several hours spent out on the peninsula in near freezing temperatures. Distracted by a photoshoot being set up in the corner, he proposes we sit outside in a car so “we can get some noise-free information for the tape recorder”.
I begin by asking him about his first impressions of Orford Ness. “It made me think of the times of kingdoms,” he says. “Especially here in the UK, where you have kept the actual castles as historical evidence of back then. It also made me wonder about our journey to the moon and, from there, to Mars. What will our structures look like that we leave behind, because we have a tendency to leave so much behind, not just on Earth, but in space, too. We discard so much and just walk away from it because we think nature is gonna take care of it, but it ain’t. That’s what a lot of our problems are about.”
In song and in conversation, the fate of the planet is one of Holley’s preoccupations, alongside his tumultuous family history, the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and, perhaps most surprisingly, his admiration for the Queen.
“I wasn’t there for her inauguration/ I wasn’t there for her celebration/ but I’m around when her birthday comes…” he sings on the surreal, but heartfelt Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants, perhaps the only paean to the British monarchy that is also an ecological sci-fi parable. It imagines the Queen leaving Earth on a spaceship, “the size of the Hindenburg and the Titanic, both put together”, and returning from her trip around the cosmos with the power “to heal the ground… heal the air, and fix the waters, too”.
Arnett was a teenager when he first met Holley in the 1980s, through his father, Bill, an avid collector and champion of “outsider” art. “Lonnie was the first person I ever heard talking about acid rain and pollution,” he recalls. “He lived in creeks, ditches and valleys, all the places that were first affected by toxic run-off and climate change. He saw what was coming. Back then, people thought he was just the crazy guy in the corner, but almost everything he was saying has come to pass.”
Holley’s life story is, by any standards, remarkable. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1950, the seventh of 27 children, and, in his telling, raised until the age of four by a travelling burlesque dancer, who then reputedly sold him to another family for a pint of whiskey. At some point in his childhood, he was hit by a car, dragged for several blocks and, having been pronounced brain-dead, spent several months in a coma. When he recovered, he was committed to the notorious Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, which Arnett describes as “a hellish place, basically a slave camp for black children”.
In his late 20s, Holley began making art in response to a great personal tragedy – the death of two of his sister’s children in a fire. Realising that the family could not afford to pay for their gravestones, he made them from discarded sandstone blocks salvaged from a local foundry. “It was like a spiritual awakening,” he told the New York Times last year. “I had been thrown away as a child, and here I was building something out of unwanted things in memorial of my little nephew and niece. I discovered art as service.”
That act of acknowledgment and remembrance seems to have been the beginning of Holley’s compulsive need to create. His yard and the land around his house in Birmingham soon became a sprawling outdoor workshop-cum-studio, with the early sandstone carvings giving way to more elaborate sculptures made from salvaged materials. When he tells me his work is honouring “the ones that went before”, he is not only talking about the courage of the black civil rights leaders he holds in awe, but the resilience and determination of his parents and grandparents, whose physical labour is echoed in his work.
“My mama would get up early in the morning and go to the city lot just before the break of day,” he tells me. “That’s when the trucks would come from all over the city, start bringing all of their trash, garbage and debris to dump it for landfill. She’d work there with my Uncle Jesse, just ricking out the copper, brass, aluminium and the tin, whatever they could take their sledgehammer to, and beat down. They’d put it into barrels and haul it to the junk yard. I saw them do it, and I inherited a lot from them. It’s like I’ve been programmed.”
It was Bill Arnett who, after visiting Holley’s yard in the mid-1980s, brought him to the attention of the wider American art world. “My dad saw what nobody else saw,” says Matt Arnett. “He didn’t think Lonnie was crazy, he thought he was a genius and he pushed that idea on to me.” In his turn, Matt also saw, or more precisely heard, what no one else had, coaxing Holley into a makeshift recording studio in an old church in Alabama in 2006, having listened to some cassettes in his car that the artist had made of himself singing while he worked. “They were songs that took up one entire side of an old 90- minute cassette, and sometimes two whole sides,” recalls Arnett. “Just raw recordings of Lonnie singing about the news of the day and what was happening in his life. It was very similar to his art in many ways, but it took me a while to make that connection.”
The studio was “just a basic set-up, two keyboards and a microphone, and, out of thin air, Lonnie sang Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants. I remember my friend, Amos, and I just looked at each other, open-mouthed,” Arnett says. “It was one of those ‘Holy fucking shit!’ moments. Just unreal.”
Holley subsequently released his debut album, Just Before Music, on the archival Dust-to-Digital label in 2012, aged 62. Three critically acclaimed albums have followed, as well as a collaboration with a younger musician, Matthew E White. Holley’s compositions range from often dissonant and disturbing state-of-the-nation reportage – I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America – to beautifully tender, meandering ballads such as All Rendered Truth.
“We call what Lonnie does improvisation, because we don’t have a better word for it,” says Arnett, “but it’s more complex than that. He has a photographic memory, for a start. He has told me that, when he’s on stage, it’s like a bunch of carousels are spinning around in his head, and he is able to pull images and ideas from all these memories and experiences that are spinning past.”
I ask Lance Ledbetter, founder of Dust-to-Digital, if it was difficult to record Holley, given that there are no second takes. “He’s pretty out there in that regard, but when something as magical as that is happening, you don’t want to inhibit the process in any way,” he says. “I’ve actually come to think of it as all one continuous song that just pours out of him. We specialise in finding adventurous music but, for us, hearing Lonnie Holley for the first time was akin to discovering a new planet.”
In the barn, Holley guides me through his creations, by turns animated and thoughtful. At least two works seem to reference police shootings of black men: an old-fashioned tailor’s dummy with pistols embedded in its torso and, more intriguingly, a wooden rack for drying clothes, on which he has suspended paper targets taken from military rifle ranges. Each target is held in place by clothes pegs and several are peppered by actual bullet holes.
“This is what I call a centre-floor piece,” he says. “You need to be able to move around it to see it. It’s about what’s been going on, how we ain’t nothing but targets. You can become a target just because you’re out there. That’s all it takes. But I made it domestic as an indicator of how our mothers and our grandmothers cared for us children enough to put our clothes on the line. But then they see their children grow up and become targets. What I’m saying is, the whole thing is repeating itself.”
Moving around the piece, he recalls a song he wrote for his 2018 album, MITH, that begins “I’m a suspect in America,” and ends, “I’m a dust speck in the universe”. Then he is off again, on another tangential chain of thought. So it is that the cultural and the cosmic, the domestic and the political, all merge, and find unique expression, in Lonnie Holley’s wildly associative, deeply attentive imagination. One suspects that would be the case whether or not anyone was looking or listening.