The medium is the medicine

Artist Lonnie Holley to perform at Cantor Arts Center

According to sculptor and musician Lonnie Holley, art is a healing form of storytelling. On March 8, in conjunction with Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center exhibition "The Medium is the Message: Art Since 1950," which includes four of his pieces, Holley will speak about his work and perform some of his original music, giving attendees the chance to experience his storytelling in person.

In a recent interview with the Weekly, he compared his memories to a carousel, vivid recollections of his experiences growing up African-American in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era spinning through his mind. One of 27 children in his Birmingham, Alabama family and sent to the brutal Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at age 8, the self-taught Holley's life as an artist began when he carved tombstones to comfort his sister after her children died in a house fire. The tombstones, fabricated from sandstone slabs he found near his sister's home, started his ongoing enchantment with sculpture and found materials.

Today, his works articulate his views on themes including the environmental impact of human overconsumption, social and economic inequality, and the challenges that he, his family and many other African-Americans have faced over the past century.

"I think art is a therapy for everybody," he said. "The thing about the human brain (is that) it has to rely on some type of comfort. That's what art has been, not only for me but if you go back through the ages you'll find out that is what allowed a lot of the artists to do some of their greatest work."

Thanks to the attention and investment of art broker/collector William Arnett, Holley, at age 69, is now receiving national recognition for his art, including previous exhibitions at the Smithsonian and White House.

Most of Holley's sculptures are still created from found items. His tour manager (and William Arnett's son) Matt Arnett compared Holley's creative process to that of a quilter utilizing worn-out clothing to create quilts. Holley's approach, Arnett said, is material-driven because each found object in Holley's sculptures has triggered either personal or historical memories.

"He sees art -- all art, including his own -- as two-fold; as a branch to help people see a better way," Matt Arnett told the Weekly. "If he's making art about those experiences ... he's not driving himself crazy remembering all of the beatings and neglect and hardship. For Lonnie, art's primary role is therapy. Lonnie is the patient and the therapist."

"And also the medicine," Holley added. "Because the art is the medicine."

According to Arnett, Holley describes his music and sculptures as "siamese twins," with no distinction between the two artforms.

Holley's 2018 album "MITH" includes themes of culture, resilience, slavery and lack of access to clean water in Flint, Michigan. Drawing inspiration from multiple styles of music including blues, jazz and spoken word, Holley is vocal about his passion for the environment and draws connections from consumerism to waste.

"Sometimes you hear me and I'm trying to (go) beyond the depths of pain," Holley said. "I know the incubation of drifting materials and what those materials are gonna cause. I know how it would dam up something, and what happens when something is dammed up ... at some point those dams are gonna bust loose. I look at the landfills and I cry, but I cry maybe 25 or 30 years ahead of what is going to occur. That these landfills are gonna start popping like popcorn and contaminate the water that we all have to drink."

"I Snuck Off the Slave Ship," Holley said, is his favorite song from the album. The song originated from Holley's visit to Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves entered the United States to be sold. Inspired by his visit, Holley created the song as a metaphor for African-American transcendence, using himself as the leading character. The song describes Holley as a captured slave on a ship, who escapes through his imagination and witnesses the next 400 years as an ominous spirit floating above the ship.

Based on the song, Holley created a short film, which was highlighted at Sundance Film Festival in January. The 20-minute film chronicles a day of Holley's life, with Holley's song as the soundtrack. Multiple cameos of his art are in the film, including a wire headdress worn by Holley during a boat ride. Until the last minute, the film has no spoken dialogue.

"It's a hard film to explain because when it premiered at Sundance, the people at Sundance, who I guess saw 9,000 short films before selecting it, said, 'It wasn't like any of the other films we've seen,'" Arnett said. "It's so familiar, and so powerful and so moving. Like his music, when you hear it or watch it, you say, 'I don't know what it's like.' It's singular in its approach. It is its own unique thing."

Each song created by Holley is considered a work-in-progress to build upon as inspiration strikes. Because he never performs the same piece of music twice, his audiences can expect a completely unique, off-the-cuff presentation of songs about current topics.

Arnett compared Holley's performance style to a flock of birds, with each band member intuitively taking direction from one other. At his upcoming Stanford show, Holley plans to create a one-of-a-kind improvisational music experience after a public conversation with curator Aleesa Alexander.

Through his work (some of which is on view at the Cantor through Aug. 18), Holley said he hopes to expand his audience's perception of current events, what art is and where it comes from.

"I am constantly in that ocean of thought. I think I weep, cry and mourn more than any other human that could ever have lived as an artist," Holley said. "I don't try to out-do anybody or say that I'm better than any artist on earth. But I just turned 69 years old so you can imagine what it's like for me. It's not easy for an African-American to have achieved what I have achieved, with the truth about our living order in society. ... By us taking these things that we've lived with all of our lives ... for the audience to see beyond fiction, that's all I ever tried to do."

Freelance writer Chrissi Angeles can be emailed at chrissiangeles@gmail.com.

What: "Lonnie Holley: Conversation and Concert."

When: Friday, March 8, at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to Cantor Arts Center.

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