Meet The Artist: Lonnie Holley


"Kentuck in Sandstone" by Lonnie Holley. Located in Kentuck's Permanent Collection in Northport, Alabama.

Lonnie Holley, sometimes known as “the Sand Man,” is an artist, art educator, and musician. He creates sculptures from sandstone and found objects, his work embodying the "one man's trash is another man's treasure" philosophy. Many of his sculptures are an amalgamation of found items such as reclaimed wood, orphaned shoes, egg cartons, and torn cloth often lashed together with barbed wire. Even his sandstone carvings began when he found the material discarded by Birmingham's foundries.

His personal history mirrors his art; from being traded for a pint of whiskey as a young child, to touring the world in his sixties, Holley's life story unfolds like a collection of disparate vignettes, coalescing into the almost mythological figure of Holley. With greying hair, a fondness for jewelry, and a tendency to lose himself in his work, two separate profilers have described him as possessing a "shamanistic" aura.


But that aura didn't arise from nowhere. Born in Jim Crow era Birmingham, Alabama, Holley is the 7th of 27 children. Besides being traded for a bottle of whiskey at the age of four, according to Holley, he was also declared brain-dead at the age of nine after being struck by a car while fleeing an abusive foster parent and at eleven sent to an infamous juvenile detention center. Cotton picker, grave-digger, and short order cook are just some of the jobs he held before beginning his artistic career.


In 1979 two of his sister's young children died in a house fire. Holley said, "We didn't have no money to get no memorial stones, so I decided I was going to cut the sandstone and make them tombstones." At the time, Holley was struggling with depression, and he credits his sandstone works with helping him get through that period.


"The art were the thing that pulled me out from that, the baby tombstones. I didn't know what art were."


Within a few years the Birmingham Museum of Art agreed to display his work after being shown some of his sandstone sculptures. This exposure quickly led to his inclusion in the Smithsonian exhibition "More Than Land and Sky: Art from Appalachia" at the Museum of American Art in Washington.


Holley eventually moved into found object sculpture, creating a sprawling art environment first in his yard and the surrounding land in Birmingham and later, after the original location was subsumed by the Birmingham Airport Authority, Harpersville, AL.


His work has progressed into painting and music, and he has released three critically acclaimed albums, the most recent of which, Mith, was released in 2018. The music video for his song "I Woke Up..." can be viewed here. In the music video, the viewer will notice Holley's wire faces and artwork from several Kentuck favorites; including the Quilters of Gee's Bend, Mose Tolliver, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, and an in-person cameo from Joe Minter in his African Village.


Kentuck Festival Guest Artist Lonnie Holley, 2004. Courtesy of Kentuck's Archives.
Lonnie Holley at his booth at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. Year unknown. Courtesy of Kentuck's Archives.
Lonnie Holley demonstrating sandstone carving at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. Year unknown. Courtesy of Kentuck's Archives.

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Inspired by recent programming at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, beginning June 5th Kentuck Art Center is dedicating ten days of online content to the Black artists in our Permanent Collection. While Kentuck Art Center cannot address the full complexity of systemic racism on our own, we can gain perspective and a sense of purpose by listening to the voices of artists we are proud to have in our collection.

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Kentuck's Permanent Collection holds artworks of significance to Kentuck's history, as well as the American Folk Art movement. The objects collected by Kentuck physically document the narrative of American Folk Art, as well as Kentuck's Festival, Studio, and Exhibiting artists. The objects in Kentuck's Permanent Collection form a history that is the basis for research, exhibition, interpretation, and community engagement.


Compiled from sources, including Kentuck's Archives, Lonnie Holley's personal website, Marcia Weber Art Objects, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, the New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker.

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© 2020 by Kentuck Art Center.

Kentuck Art Center and Festival was established in 1971. Kentuck's mission is to perpetuate the arts, engage the community, and empower the artist. The Kentuck Festival of the Arts is held annually in October, and during that weekend, makes a $5.5 million economic impact on its community.

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