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Lonnie Holley, who was stolen from his mother and beaten in an Alabama work camp by the time he was 11 years old, found salvation in things the rest of us throw away. Today, “Queen Sugar” author Natalie Baszile reckons with the otherworldly creations and music of one of the South’s most distinctive artists.


Story by Natalie Baszile | Photographs by Natalie Baszile & Ethan Payne


 
 
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This story begins with a baby shoe, but not the kind of baby shoe you’re imagining. Not a tiny white lace-up infant booty, or a small cotton sock woven to look like a miniature Mary Jane. This baby shoe is a three-inch nugget of driftwood that washed up on the jagged breakwater a few yards from where we stand. Dark as a walnut from untold years floating in seawater, it’s soft to the touch, with edges rounded smooth from the tides’ constant battering. It’s 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and right now Lonnie Holley is cupping this mysterious, baby-shoe talisman in the palm of his hand as he explains its magical powers.

“I’m giving your daughter a memory circus,” Lonnie whispers, leaning in close. He wears a navy windbreaker whose front zipper-pocket bulges with wire scraps, thread, and twisted plastic baggies. When my daughter and I first arrived at this warehouse, an old World War II shipbuilding plant overlooking the San Francisco Bay, Holley was rummaging through an oil barrel filled with trash. Mistaking him for a homeless man, I’d stupidly walked right past him. But now I’m huddled close, listening intently as he places this talisman in my daughter’s outstretched hand.

“The sole of the shoe is many,” Holley says, “but you can see how each layer looks like a different layer in the sole of a baby shoe.”  He turns the piece of wood over. My daughter and I stare hard as he continues his dissertation. “You’ve got so many mothers and grandmothers. Mothers and mothers and mothers and mothers — all the way back to Africa — that’s going to fulfill the footsteps of this baby shoe.”

The longer I stare at the piece of driftwood the more clearly I see what he means: The ocean has worn away the outer bark to reveal the wood’s inner layers, at least 30 wafer-thin rings of a long fallen tree. I glance at Holley, sensing he is passing along something magical, something imbued with a type of cosmic power. Holley seems tuned to another frequency, one us mortals are deaf to.

Spend a little time with Lonnie Holley, and you start to see the world differently. You slip into a dream state, a place where objects have a force and undeniable power. A place where everything and everyone is electrified, energized, and connected.

 
 
 Photos by Ethan Payne

Photos by Ethan Payne

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My first introduction to Lonnie Holley was a year ago, when I came across his work at de Young Museum’s exhibition, “Revelations: Art from the American South,” here in San Francisco. The de Young had just acquired 62 pieces — paintings, sculptures, quilts, and drawings — from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, collector Bill Arnett’s massive trove of Southern art by African Americans. Works by Thornton Dial, Joe Light, Mose Tolliver, Annie Mae Young, and Lonnie Holley, among others, were to be exhibited for the entire year.

I was familiar with Thornton Dial’s work, of course, and had seen Louisiana Bendolph’s quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, but until that opening weekend, I’d not heard of Lonnie Holley.

Yet, of all the works I admired as I wandered through the vast exhibition, Holley’s alone rocked me to my core. Seeing his piece “Him and Her Hold the Root” left me feeling I’d been punched in the gut. It consisted of an enormous twisted tree branch, gray from age, laid sideways over two weather-beaten rocking chairs, which I later learned belonged to his grandparents.

The rockers’ woven cane backs and seats were tattered and fraying. And yet for all the chairs’ decay, there was an elegance to the composition. The rockers seemed to lean into each other the way I could imagine two old black people leaning into each other after years of toil and hard labor. One of the rockers had what looked like a flattened pillow in the middle of its seat. The tree’s gnarled branch, like something salvaged after a hurricane, was lashed in place with rusted wire. The piece told the story of hardship and suffering, but also joy and dogged resilience. It spoke of humility and grace and quiet dignity.

Holley had captured the whole history of black people, of poor people. It was the South in all of her complicated beauty and ugliness, all of her joy and sorrow.

As it happened, that same weekend Holley was scheduled to appear on a panel discussion. Intrigued, I reserved a ticket.

 
 

Him and Her Hold the Root. [Photo by Natalie Baszile]

 
 
 

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Over the years, people have tended to make negative assumptions about self-taught artists. Until recently, most major museums, galleries, and private collectors have overlooked the power of their work,  dismissing it outright or celebrating it only as crude, thereby marginalizing and compartmentalizing it further. They’ve mistaken the artists’ lack of training for a lack of intellectual rigor. But sitting in the packed auditorium that Sunday afternoon, listening to Lonnie Holley talk about his life and work, I felt I was in the presence of a man with remarkable emotional and intellectual gifts.

When asked when he first thought of himself as an artist, Holley shared, in his distinct way of speaking, the story of his Alabama childhood. He was born in Birmingham in 1950. At the age of five, as a way to keep himself occupied, Holley began picking up trash at the drive-in theater and the fairgrounds near his home.

“I think I began doing my art when I was told to get out of the house and dig worms,” he said.

I started turning over the stones, broken glass, the leaves, the broken branches. Everything that would flow down those ditches, down those creeks ... I had learned to do work  ... I was learning to look in those bags and unravel that wrinkled paper, or seeing the condition and the deterioration of what the rain washed off and put against a fence that had begun to rot away. I examined those conditions. I can only say that I was an artist as a child. I didn’t know the word “art,” didn’t know how to spell “art.” I didn’t know how to spell “sculpture.” Sculpture wasn’t a part of what Negros knew to proclaim.

The seventh of 27 children, Holley spoke of his mother’s profound fertility as “birthsmithing,” as if she’d made a craft and an art of it.

“Momma, giving birth to 27 children out of 32 pregnancies,” he explained, “there must have been something that was governing this woman to let that much human flesh come from her.”  

 
 
 
 Photo: Ethan payne

Photo: Ethan payne

 
 
 

By examining in childhood the trash dropped by human beings, Holley said he experienced “America’s habits,” her insatiable consumerism and waste, and became intoxicated by the evidence itself. The materials Holley uses in his assemblages are found in what the rest of us call trash — everything from plastic and tires to scrap metal and computer components. He had a fondness for wire. His work offers harsh a commentary on capitalism and greed.

“I take something that is again landfill, and I ask, how can the spirit use me to talk about trash,  garbage, and debris, waste that is going to be ghostly to our existence. It’s not going anywhere. It’s not deteriorating.”

Even objects made of natural material have previous lives and are filled with memory. Holley explained his piece, “Him and Her Hold the Root,” which had first captured my attention.

[Y]ou’ve gotta see that chair, the condition of the chairs ... ’cause one of those chairs … the rocker is not even on it. The father’s rocker, the thing that allows the chair to rock, is broken. So, I took the chair of a woman and put it on the handle as a support. You got to look at all of this. My thing is, I’m trying to show conditioning to make Him and Her.

As he spoke, he seemed to lapse into a trance, rocking back and forth as though traveling back through time and space to a memory.

We have to create relationships where we’re together raising the whole of the humanity, which is the root — small roots as well as the larger roots. The larger root is Africa. … My mother’s lineage is from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria. For me to find that out, it was like, OK! ... It put the crown on me that I needed. I’m nobody’s king, but I did need a kingdom. I did need a throne.

A collective gasp rippled through the audience.

 
 
 Photo: Ethan payne

Photo: Ethan payne

 
 

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Beyond the warehouse now, the sun is a copper disc hovering at the horizon. My daughter and I have come to FEELS, a multi-genre music and arts festival in Richmond, California, where Holley is exhibiting his work and is scheduled to perform his music. It’s a cool, diverse, and inclusive crowd: lots of people of color in platform shoes and silk kimonos. Septum piercings and tattoos. Big afros, scruffy beards, and man buns. Most of Holley’s fellow artists are young enough to be his children, maybe even his grandchildren, but Holley’s energy and youthful spirit match theirs. I follow him to a glass case, where one of his space shuttle prints is on display, and people gather around to hear what he has to say. His impromptu talk is more sermon than lecture.

“I didn’t intend the inside of the space shuttle to look like the face of a human,” Holley says. His eyes are bright and excited, and he seems almost surprised by what he has created. “Look at the nose and the mouth. And then it looks like a breast. It looks like a human who was on her knees. On her knees! Onto wherever. Wherever we can find ourselves on the journey of life. Because this thing is no more than a ship. It’s going to take us no more than it’s been programmed to take us.” He turns to me.

“You hear me, sister?”

By now, I’ve learned to just go with it; release and let my mind flow along on the winding path of Holley’s thoughts, where everything is connected, trusting that he’ll bring it all back home.

“We’re being programmed to go into the quicksand fields of stupidity without a way out,” Holley says to the assembled crowd. “They have us playing their games. They’ve got us easily distracted from the truth. ... We gotta speak with a oneness, a one greatness ... but we’ve got to be what? We’ve got to be ready.” And here, Holley breaks into a verse from the Negro spiritual  “I Want to Be Ready.” He’s like an actor in a musical who can’t contain his feelings and bursts forth in song.

“I want to be ready!”  

Holley’s voice has a rich, old-timey resonance. One verse, and all of a sudden it’s not 2018 anymore. We’re time-traveling back through Holley’s memory to fiery sermons and ring shouts.

Everyone nods. An artist from the next booth, a young white guy holding his baby daughter, has wandered over, and as Holley sings, the guy shouts, “That’s right! Yes, sir!”

And just to make sure we understand what he means, Holley beckons us to draw closer.

“Look at this right here,” he says. We all lean over his space shuttle print as he traces its outline with his finger. Holley is like the magician who reveals the secret of his magic trick. As we follow the shape he outlines, he shows us that the print isn’t only a space shuttle, it’s a woman’s face — before he shows us it ’s also an ankh.

As he continues to talk, he references ancient African civilizations and George Washington Carver. He speaks of clay and sand and dust — all in a stream of consciousness that keeps us riveted in place.

“Listen at me, sister,” he says, pausing to stare at me through the whirlwind of his thoughts. It’s like he’s trying to pass something on to me, to us — a coded message, a warning, a prophecy.

 
 
 The cover of Holley’s album “MITH,” slated to be released this Friday. [Photo by Timothy Duffy, Courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records]

The cover of Holley’s album “MITH,” slated to be released this Friday. [Photo by Timothy Duffy, Courtesy of Jagjaguwar Records]

 
 

We still have an hour before Holley’s performance. He takes me by the elbow, and we walk a circuit around the warehouse. Holley has a friendly, open manner. He seems to enjoy talking with people, energized by the exchange of ideas.

We’re a few yards beyond the space shuttle print when another artist approaches and hands Holley what I first think is some type of dream-catcher suspended from a velvet clothes hanger. It’s a jumble of yellow and white twisted wire, knotted strings and bits of plastic wrap. A copper washer is woven into the center along with a plastic number “8.” An Egyptian-looking eye hangs at an angle off to one side. Turns out, this is Holley’s latest creation — an assemblage of materials he’s found or been given and then collaborated with two other artists to create in the few hours since he arrived. This is what I mean about Holley’s openness. People are drawn to him, and he receives everyone without judgment or reservation.

“As we make friends, we’re put on Earth, and all of us is Jesus-like,” he says. “I don’t want to put nobody in no certain category.” Holley rejects labels and categories for anyone, and particularly when it comes to black, self-taught artists.

“These categories [like outsider artists or vernacular artist] almost put a dumb sign on your back or a stupid halo around your head,” he says.

Holley is more interested in what he calls “the righteous.”

 
 
 

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As Holley tells it, 18 months after his birth, he was taken from his mother by a burlesque dancer who danced in the carnival. This is how he told the story to Theodore Rosengarten in Something to Take My Place: the Art of Lonnie Holley.

I don’t know her name; I never learned her real name. Mama said she let the lady carry me off to keep me a couple of days, but she took me away and did not bring me back. ... It was said that she took me out of state to Ohio. ... It was three years when she brought me to Alabama by way of the fair. ... I was told that she was a burlesque dancer, so no telling what kind of man she hadn’t had.

Eventually, sometime in 1954, the woman’s travels brought her back to Alabama. One evening, after her show, the woman went to a local bar. By then, Holley was three years old.

She bring me to the shot house, and she knows by this time she’s not able to give me the nourishment I need. ... I’m not a baby that she can sit up and hold. ... I’m changing now from a little boy to getting bigger.

The wife of the shot house owner, Mrs. McElroy, saw Holley was malnourished and convinced the woman to give Holley up in exchange for a bottle of liquor.

I was undernourished and Mrs. McElroy fixed me a plate of food. She just sat me down on the floor and put the plate down in front of me. The house must have been full of drunks or people that were drinking. This one man was trying to get food off my plate. I took the plate and backed beneath the couch, but the man kept messing with me, and I come down and bit the man on the back of his leg. Oooo, he got mad and started jerking a poker iron under the couch at me, like I was a rat, and jerked it in my head. That was the first painful thing that happened to my brain, a piece of iron jerking it. They took me to the hospital to get the poker iron pulled out of my head.”

For the next four years, Holley, who’d been nicknamed “Tonky” because he’d been raised in a honky-tonk, lived with the McElroys. But when Holley was 7, Mrs. McElroy died, and Mr. McElroy blamed Holley for her death.

He had been gone for about two weeks, and he left it up to me to feed her every day and give her water before I left to go out to school. One day, I went to school and came back, and he came in later that evening getting ready to open the house up [for business]. Mr. McElroy went into her room, because that’s where most of his money was stashed. … And he come out of there cursing me: “Goddamn it if you didn’t kill my damn wife.”

Holley hadn’t killed her, but the enraged McElroy whipped him with a cord, then sent him outside to cut wood for the rest of the day. That evening, as Holley attempted to cross the street, he was hit by a car. The car dragged him 2½ blocks before the driver stopped. Holley suffered massive head injuries and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay unconscious for more than three months. Diagnosed as brain dead, he finally regained consciousness when his classmates came to pay their last respects. After he recovered from his injuries, authorities returned him to his custodian, Mr. McElroy, who was always abusive and always drunk.

For the next year, all Holley could think about was running away. He was 9.

“I just wanted to get away from there,” he told Rosengarten. “There was no love there.” Holley slept in ditches or by a nearby creek. On one runaway attempt, Holley stowed away on a train. He made it all the way to New Orleans.

 
 
 
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Photos by Ethan Payne

 
 
 

For a short time, his future looked bright. New Orleans was in its heyday, with the music of Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino its soundtrack. Holley was taken in by a local man called Big Daddy, who sold vegetables, sugar, rice, black-eyed peas, pots, and pans from his horse-drawn wagon. Big Daddy opened his home to street children.

“He was a wonderful man,” Holley recalls. “He was very giving.” But one day, while on a delivery with Big Daddy, young Holley indulged his curiosity about how fast the horse could go. When Big Daddy pulled over to make a delivery, Holley seized the reigns. The horse took off, charging down the street. All Big Daddy’s merchandise flew out of the wagon and was quickly snatched up by people on the street. Furious, Big Daddy called the police, and Holley was hauled off to Juvenile Hall. Soon after, he was put on a bus back to Mr. McElroy in Birmingham.

Holley made one last escape attempt. Now 11, bolstered by his escape to far-flung New Orleans and obsessed with finding his mother,  Holley struck out again. The Civil Rights Movement had come to Birmingham, but the young Holley was mostly oblivious to the mounting tensions. Unbeknownst to him, notorious police commissioner Bull Connor had established a city-wide curfew in an attempt to block black students from joining a protest at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The night Holley made his escape, he was captured by the police and taken to juvenile jail. There, some fellow inmates attempted a jailbreak and insisted Holley join them. They stole a car, which they eventually crashed, and were apprehended. The next morning, Holley was shipped off to Mt. Meigs, otherwise known as the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.

Thus began the most harrowing four years of  Holley’s life.

 
 
 

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The Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children was a labor camp. Black children from all over the state were imprisoned there, forced to work long hours picking cotton, on the grounds, or in the orchards. Holley was assigned to the cotton fields, where he was overseen by men with guns. At 11, he was required to pick 100 pounds of cotton every day. Punishment for even minor infractions was severe. Holley was regularly whipped with a white-oak sapling soaked in tractor oil.

“I got a whupping every day, every day in the same place,” he says. “You wasn’t allowed to go to the nurse. You had to wear your whupping. Didn’t nobody discuss how bad your ass got beat or why you got beat, you just got beat.”

Still obsessed with finding his mother, Holley plotted his escape. On the appointed day, he told the overseer he had to use the bathroom and was given permission to leave the crew. Holley went to the edge of the cotton field where he squatted and then waited for over an hour for his fellow inmates to work their way through the fields. When he felt sure he’d been forgotten, Holley made a run for it.

I started running and I ran all day.  ... All the rest of that day, I ran and ran and ran. I’m running to the middle of the night and I fall into a hole. The hole was full of leaves; I felt like falling on a mattress and just went to sleep, because I was so tired.

The next morning Holley woke up to discover he’d fallen into a sunken grave. “I call it my dream hole. It was the one place I had an opportunity to rest.”

 
 
 Photo: Ethan payne

Photo: Ethan payne

 
 

Holley was discovered the next night, sleeping in a Farmall tractor dealership. Holley had broken in, eaten a bit of cheese and a few crackers he found in the refrigerator and had fallen asleep.

The next thing I know, this big white man jerked me up, took his fist and knocked me out. The next thing I know, Mr. Holloway [the Mt. Meigs overseer] is standing over me, slapping me, saying, ‘Dolly, what you want to run away for? What you want to run away for?’ Before I could tell him why I ran away, he took his fist and knocked me out again.

Holley was taken back to Mt. Meigs, where the authorities made an example of him. While his fellow inmates watched, Holley was tied to a bench and whipped 50 times with a stick dipped in tractor oil. His thighs split open. The men hit him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. His bloody pants and shirt had to be cut from his body. In a final act of savagery, the authorities threw Holley on a rock pile where, for three months, too weak and injured to walk, Holley crawled. He was given a single slice of bread and one cup of water each day. He was 11 years old.

They put me on the rock pile during the summer, winter, rains, snow. ... The rock pile was washed white rocks, a pile of rocks in a circle. ... By me getting that whipping, my blood bled through the clothes they gave me. ... My blood was on those rocks. The rain would wash, and mold would crop up on it. I stayed on that rock pile for a year and a half.

Holley was imprisoned at St. Meigs for a total of four years, by his recollection, until his paternal grandmother, Hixie Canady, heard he was there and rescued him. It was Canady who first told Holley that his real name wasn’t Tonky McElvoy. It was Lonnie Bradley Holley.

In a short time, Holley was reunited with his mother, Dottie Holley. She lived a few blocks from Canady. One day, while he was out walking, Holley crossed paths with a neighbor who recognized him and told him where his mother lived.

Mama came running to the porch. She burst out crying and threw her arms open and said, ‘My son, my son, my son.’ … It was so much crying. Everybody found out it was me; my sisters and brothers and all the people started crowding up on the porch. … Mama’s excitement made me feel welcome. I was not that lost son, that lost child. That was the first time I felt loved. I’ve had these emotions, but I didn’t actually know what love were.

 
 
 

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Every survivor of abuse must decide what to do with his memories, or what to let his memories do to him. Long ago, Holley put his to work, fashioning something new and mysterious and unexpected from the dark.

“Art was my savior,” he says. “Art kept me from killing myself. We should get up every day and be thankful for the brain that we have and the blood that we have that was passed on through generations and generations and generations of DNA.”

When I ask him about how he feels about his mother, he says, “Mama did what Mama had to do. Some women call themselves being ’shamed of doing what a woman have to do. But Mama giving birth to 27 children out of her 32 pregnancies, I think that was overly queenly. If any woman should deserve a crown, it should have been her.”

As we walk and talk, Holley scans the ground. He’s always on the lookout for material. He pulls a braided strip of yellow, green, and red wire from his zipped pocket, explaining that he found it outside. He takes a piece of wire from his windbreaker pocket and begins twisting it with his bare hands, using the rings on his left hand as a shield. In a few seconds,  with no help from a pair of pliers, nothing but the strength in his fingers, he’s bent it into the shape of a woman’s profile — a shape I’ll come to understand is a frequent image in his work.

“You wouldn’t believe that junk would make a man happy,” Holley says as he works. “Trash, garbage, and debris will satisfy me. I don’t need no Rolls Royce. I don’t need no diamonds or no pearls.”

 
 
 
 photo: ethan payne

photo: ethan payne

 
 
 

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The Portland band, Sun Foot, three scrawny white guys in baseball caps, Bermuda shorts, and Pumas, has just finished their set. They’re packing their guitars, drum kit, and miniature keyboard, which looks like Schroeder’s from “Peanuts.” Their sound is classic ’50s surf rock mixed with Muscle Shoals soul and a smattering of spoken word. It’s quirky, that’s for damn sure, and I can’t help but wonder how the hell these guys got matched up with Lonnie Holley.

But if I learned anything from hanging out with Holley at FEELS, it’s this: Stay open, don’t judge, go with the flow.

I’ve come to hear Holley perform at The Lab, a performance space in San Francisco’s Mission District. The neighborhood is ground zero for hipsters. In the last five years, as the tech industry has exploded, people have complained San Francisco has lost its funky, alternative vibe. It’s become too white, people say. Too rich, too homogeneous. All the creative people have fled over to Oakland. But looking around, I’m impressed with the cross-section of folks in the audience. Hipsters, yeah, but also hippies, creatives, and folks who look like they’ve come straight from work in the financial district. Black, white, LatinX, and Asian. Queer and straight. It’s a mish-mash. A melting pot of humanity with one thing in common: We’ve all made the pilgrimage to hear Lonnie Holley play.

Holley’s keyboard is positioned in the middle of the small raised platform. Behind it, the white walls glow neon pink in the stage lights. Holley’s keyboard stand is wrapped in a denim quilt with a big capital “L H” in the center. The geometric patchwork design reminds me of Gee’s Bend quilts. In the pink light, the overlapping squares glow dusky purple.

After a few minutes, Matt Arnett — second son of collector Bill Arnett and Holley’s manager, protector, confidante, and traveling companion — walks onto the stage and thanks everyone for coming out. You can tell right away he and Holley have a bond. There’s an ease between them, a familiarity that only comes after traveling thousands of long miles together — trust and respect that’s earned.

 
 
 
 Photo: Ethan payne

Photo: Ethan payne

 
 
 

Holley takes the stage wearing the same windbreaker. Tonight, in addition to the rings and bracelets that adorn his fingers and wrists, Holley wears a handful of necklaces, one of which has a giant rhinestone in the center. Every time he turns, the rhinestone glints, throwing needles of light across the audience.

Much of Holley’s music is improvised and intensely autobiographical. His lyrics, inspired by recent experience as much as from distant memories, come in a stream of consciousness. His songs are never the same from one performance to the next. I first heard his music piped in over the sound system at the de Young Museum exhibit a year earlier. The songs were a blend of his own growling and moaning, the harmonies a mix of gospel and old-time blues accompanied by his piano to create music that was simultaneously ancient, avant-garde, and cosmic. His song could be prayers.

Tonight, Holley’s first song starts with whistling while he massages the keyboard.

“What is the signs of time?” he sings. “In the downward part of the world?”

He goes on to sing about lost women and children, erupting volcanoes, pharaohs, and plagues. Then he strikes the keys releasing a shock wave of atonal notes. His legs bounce and his fingers race over the keyboard like a blind man’s over a book of Braille.

“Wake up, America,” he sings, raising his hands to the side of his head as if the thoughts are coming too fast. Like his sculptures and paintings, each song is part meditation, part warning, part personal history. Although Holley’s music changes every time he performs, its latest recorded incarnation will appear this Friday when the Indiana-based indie label Jagjaguwar releases his third album, “MITH.”

Between songs, he addresses the audience, referring to himself in the third person as Tonky McElroy. He shares the story of digging worms as a child, getting hit by the car and lying unconscious, then moves on to share stories about his recent drive down to Los Angeles. He speaks of six spaceships, 144,000 elephants, and the power of memory and human intention.

At the end of the show, he stands up and takes a bow. He salutes the crowd with his signature blessing, “Thumbs up to Mother Universe.”

 
 
 

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Ella Fitzgerald is singing “Cry Me A River” when I show up at Paulson Fontaine Press in Berkeley. I find Holley bent over an enormous work table in the center of a white room with a cathedral ceiling and windows that look out onto a nursery filled with native California plants.

For 10 to 12 hours a day, for the last three days, Holley has been here working on large-scale prints — the largest he’s ever created. While Fitzgerald croons, Holley cuts shapes out of micro-thin sheets of black Japanese paper speckled with what looks like stardust. He hands each eye, mouth, or profile of a face to one of two assistants. The mood in the studio is relaxed but serious. Holley’s manner is focused and more subdued than I’ve seen him. With his glasses propped on his forehead, he directs the two young printers on exactly where to place each shape.

This is the third time master printmaker Pam Paulson and her business partner, Rhea Fontaine, have invited Holley here to make art. Each time Holley visits, they and their assistants brainstorm and consult with Holley about what he’s interested in making. They’re familiar with his work and suggest different tools and methods he might use. On previous visits, Holley worked with woodblocks or made prints incorporating material the team provided — sheets of copper, lengths of rope, handmade paper — with the twigs, rusty scissors, shells, chicken bones, razor blades and leaves he found during his wanderings. He pressed the materials onto printing plates. The plates were pressed into soft wax, which was then dropped in acid.

For this visit, the team has assembled an array of paints and handmade Japanese papers along with ropes and wires, storing all the material in a handmade box stenciled with elephants, Holley’s favorite animal.

 
 
 Photo: Natalie Baszile

Photo: Natalie Baszile

 
 

Holley breaks away from his work to walk me around the studio. He shows me a gigantic print the team finished earlier that afternoon. It’s a collage of overlapping faces and eyes in shades of blue, green, and yellow. Holley calls them placements. The front-facing eyes seem to look at each other while also looking out at the viewer.

“I don’t want an artist to try to be like me and hold onto everything,” he says. “I’ve done things that they should not have to do,” which I take to mean enduring his early hardships and the trauma. “But it’s important that you hold onto things because those things is your lessons. It’s like you’re opening up a book of yours and you’ve got pages to look back in your history.”

Holley slides a framed print from a rack. “What I want to do with my brain while I’m alive, I’m getting a chance to show that even the finest debris can be preserved.”

Holley’s smaller sculptures are here, too, displayed on almost every surface. He pulls one closer for me to examine.

“This piece made me think about Mama and Momo. It made me think about a lot of women washing clothes and handing out pieces of laundry on the line and letting the sun dry them.”

“I know that they’ll never value me up there with Picasso.” He leads me to another sculpture. “Can you imagine this little bit here, thousands of times? I had did this thousands of times, and they bulldozed it down. They buried it.”  By “they,” Holley is referring to Birmingham city officials who in 1996 declared eminent domain and demolished the thousands of sculptures he’d erected on his property, to make way for an airport expansion. All these years later, the memory of that terrible moment haunts him still. He told Theodore Rosengarten: “It were murder. They used this theory of distract, and the bulldozer come in, and they buried my thoughts with a bulldozer. I mourned over that. I was crying. I was in distress from the condemnation of my property and the ruining of my place. They made it into an art graveyard.”

 
 
 
 photo: ethan payne

photo: ethan payne

 
 
 

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Nancy Wilson’s voice wafts from the radio as Holley wraps up for the day. He’s been here for 12 hours. He’s been going at this breakneck pace for more than a month.

“I’m just trying to be appreciative for all I’ve learned,” he tells me. “I think I still have some things that’s unfinished in my life. I want to die owning at least three acres where I can do whatever I want to do; to set it up before I die. I don’t know where I’m going to have it, but I want that.... I make art for me to show my kids this is what your father did, what he’s still doing. I make my art as an example — as an example that you can do it without someone beating the hell out of you to get it done.”

He pauses and looks out of the window.

“My Grandmama called me her King Bee,” he says. “Maybe I have an unseen kingdom around me. Or after I’m dead and gone, maybe there’ll be a kingdom or a mixture of human brains that will start their orchestration because of what I’m done. Or if somehow or another, through the search of DNA, they’ll say, ‘That throne right there belongs to you, Mr. Holley.’ They’ll get me all the way back to Nigeria, and they’ll say, ‘This was your ancestor’s throne and now you’re the inheritor of it.’”