Lonnie Holley

Lonnie Holley on the importance of oneness

Lonnie Holley (right) performing at the Dallas Museum of Art on April 19, 2019. Photo: Dickie Hill.

Lonnie Holley emerged as part of the American art world of the 1980s as a sculptor of evocative sandstone carvings and elaborate found object assemblage. More recently, Holley has expanded into sound with his albums Just Before Music (2012), Keeping a Record of It (2013), and Mith (2018). Below, on the occasion of a performance at the Dallas Museum of Art, as part of Soluna 2019, Holley explains the process of research and meditation that informs all of his creative work. Holley’s art is currently on view as part of “America Will Be at the DMA through September 15, 2019, and he continues to tour across the United States, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand this summer and fall.

MY MAMA HAD TWENTY-SEVEN CHILDREN. She couldn’t afford to send me to college. My grandmama had thirty-seven grandchildren to worry about. I had to self-educate myself, get all kinds of National Geographics, encyclopedias, or whatever else I could see in a pictorial manner, because I couldn’t read and write that well. I had to study hard, otherwise I would get my ass whooped, whether I was in school or not. I had to figure out, when I get home to my grandmama, what am I going to tell her I learned? But she was a strong enough woman to understand. She took me in and embraced me: “Baby, I know you’ve been through hell.”

At first, my work—then sculpture—was experienced either in museums or through what people wrote about it in the media. Now, especially with my music, it’s at a point where I can put my work online instead of on the radio. That’s great because I can project my message to the innermost and outermost depths. All my work, in any form, comes down to oneness. The oneness is important: the oneness goes all the way down to this one universe that we believe in; this one mothership, our planet Earth, that we live in; this one mother that gave birth to us and that we should respect; and then that one gray spot that we’re going to after we are dead and gone. That jar all of ashes, the oneness we can’t break out of, that one. A cup, for example, could be called trash. But I could do something in that cup, like mold something, or put a lot of objects in there, and turn them upside down, and seal it. I try to study something before I toss it, before I throw it away. I’ve done that for years and years and years.

Dr. King said, “Be the best at what you do.” I was worried a lot when I was younger and first got into art. I worried a lot about criticism, about who actually appreciated my work, whether churches or industries would even want to take my thinking into consideration. But now, as Dr. King says, that doesn’t matter, because I have seen my higher purpose. I know that my work’s been in the Smithsonian, is in the United Nations. I had works in the UN by 1982 that later went to the thirteen original colonies, sixty-four cities of the United States of America. But I don’t go around patting myself on the back. If I went around trying to pat myself on the back all the time for my achievements, I wouldn’t have time to study, to achieve a greater level. As I climbed for higher power, jealousy, animosity, and hatred would always cut my ladder off at the bottom.

A whole lot of stuff is going on in my brain, trying to bring us to that message, like the angel Gabriel, me blowing the horn, me saying, “Beware” or “Extra! Extra! Look out all about it!” or “Listen out all about it!” Remember to read all about it: our ozone layer depletion; climate change; death affecting, to me, all of life. Have we looked at the storm water, the water hurricanes have left, what damage was created? When the water flushed in, what was in there that flushed out? We don’t know what some of the roots of the grass have been soaked with. Something was growing and breeding in them, but we don’t know exactly. For the persons interested in what I’m talking about, it’s what that one drop of water can do to these little cracks. Once it falls in these little cracks, that one drop of water is going to sink on and sink on, deeper and deeper. Now think about a zillion drops of water, dropping in these cracks and sinking somewhere, over the period of a hurricane, and the hurricane, also, blowing in other water. I’m concerned about that, because that water has got to go somewhere.