EAST HAMPTON, NY – Lonnie Holley’s life began in an impossible place: in 1950, seventh among his mother’s 27 children, in the Birmingham era of Jim Crow, Ala. As he grew up it got worse. When he was four, he said, it was exchanged for a bottle of whiskey by a nurse who stole it from his mother. Later, the story goes, he was in a coma for several months and was pronounced brain dead after being hit by a car that dragged him several blocks. He then spent time at the infamous Alabama Industrial School for Negro children until his paternal grandmother – he simply calls her “Momo” – was able to take him away at the age of 14.

He made his way out of the ruins of his origins, became a musician and filmmaker and taught himself to make visual art. He has come far enough since then to have just completed a residency as an artist at the Elaine de Kooning House in this prominent city, where he created around 100 works of art over two months last winter, many of which ended up in two Hamptons exhibitions. They will be shown at the same time: “Entangled in de Kooning’s fence” at the newly established nonprofit South Etna Montauk Foundation in Montauk, NY (until August 29) and “Everything That Wasn’t Known: Lonnie Holley at the Elaine de Kooning House” at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY (through September 6).

“Gratitude,” he says as he looks back on everything. “I am grateful for the ability to be productive in the first place.”

But “productive” is a humble way of describing an artist who, since 1979, has rethought what can be done with discarded or seemingly useless materials, and especially rubbish. He continues the tradition of artists who use salvaged materials to portray the life of black people in the United States, such as Alabama-born Noah Purifoy (1917-2004), who was responsible for his sculptures made from charred rubble after the Watts Riots 1965 is known.

Holley’s artistic career was sparked by having to carve out tombstones for his sister’s two children after a fire killed them and she couldn’t afford to buy suitable markers. He found stacks of discarded sandstone-like by-products of metal castings from a foundry near her home. “It was like a spiritual awakening,” he said during an interview at de Kooning House. “I was thrown away as a child, and here I built something out of unwanted items in memory of my little nephew and niece. I discovered art as a service. “

His relationship with sandstone grew and with his earliest sculptures he was referred to as the Sandman. Eventually he overcame this way of working and began to include other things, especially tiny pieces of fabric, metal springs, shoes, boxes, wood, and antique items, some of which he added to a growing collection that was carried around on his wrists and around the back of his neck.

He has perfected mixing these items into memorable assemblages like “She Wore Our Chains,” a new piece of work created from a framed, amazing 19th century photo of an African American woman in an antique shop in North Carolina and beyond found the one he sprayed women’s faces in profile. It’s included on the South Etna show, along with a rotten tree stump he found on one of his winter morning walks in the woods behind the de Kooning house. The tree stump became the backbone of some of the distinctive sculptural work in both shows.

The turning point in Holley’s career came when he met Bill Arnett, a longtime collector and art dealer who had traveled the south in 1986. During the meeting in Birmingham, he bought one of Holley’s works – an intriguing collection, alluding to the struggles of Black People, made out of a mannequin and chains. “Lonnie was so far ahead of the world’s white artists that you can’t believe it,” said Arnett, who died last year, of the Washington Post, describing his first encounter with Holley’s work in 2017. “I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Arnett sponsored Holley along with other self-taught black Alabama artists, such as Joe Minter, who created the African Village in America (an ever-evolving art garden he started sculpting out of scrap in the 1980s). Betty Avery, who used broken items like mirrors, glass stumps and tree stumps in her garden as roots for her gatherings; and the great Thornton Dial, who used tidy materials to create art that told the story of the black struggles in the south.

“He’s really helped me improve my job,” said Holley, “and things got a lot more comfortable. Sometimes I wonder how it would have turned out if Bill hadn’t shown up. “But Holley himself is kind of a collector and over the years his work has gradually evolved into a conglomerate of black culture, experiences and stories.

Holley’s relationship with objects or culture from black communities is nuanced. In his new paintings, silhouetted faces are magnificently layered on quilts and then dabbed in shiny dark colors. The faces collide to create optical illusions, paying homage to the black quilters at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, whose hand-sewn traditions date back to the mid-19th century. Not only does he refer to the quilts as works of modern art (as critics have done, comparing them to works by Matisse and other great modernists); Rather, Holley sees it as coming from a story of need, pain, and necessity.

With his transformative note, he moves them from solid geometric shapes into figures that embody the experiences they have brought about. “Lonnie’s work shares a common artistic sensibility and brilliance” with Gee’s Bend quilts, said Alicia Longwell, who curated the show at Parrish. “His drawing and painting on the ceiling becomes a tribute to the manufacturer and his own way of recycling and honoring tradition.”

This is how he sees the spray paint he uses, which is reminiscent of graffiti in his glowing paintings: “I want people to be able to say when all of this – all of my work – is presented, oh, that Lonnie, he took it all , his hands took the ghost, the things we shouldn’t have, and brought it together. “

He speaks dreamily of the sea in Montauk, where he spent a lot of time on the beach. “The big blue,” he said, showing random pieces of seashells, wood, and cloth that he picked up by the water because he thought he could use them. “Makes me think of being all alone, like an ancestor left behind.”

And while he continues to consider himself an outsider, his visual artwork has been collected by some of the most important institutions in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and it has been displayed in the Rose Garden of the White House. “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship”, an 18-minute musical film about the artist’s relationship to freedom in America, which he directed together with Cyrus Moussavi, was shown at Sundance in 2019.

“Lonnie has long enjoyed cult status among art cognoscenti as a performer and visual artist, but in recent years he’s passed over and gained more recognition in the so-called quotation-mainstream corridors of the art world. Said Alison Gingeras, an art historian who curated the exhibition on South Etna.

James Fuentes, the gallery owner from Manhattan who shows Holley’s work and has placed it in museum collections since 2013, called him a “modern shaman”. “You can’t ignore the power of his narrative and his connection as a descendant of slavery,” he said, pointing to the recurring motifs of slave ships in his sculptures. According to Fuentes, prices for Holley were between $ 5,000 and $ 50,000 – “so far”. As a sign of the growing receptivity of the art world, Blum & Poe, a gallery in New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo, will represent the artist.

“Lonnie had expressed a sincere desire to have a bigger platform and more visibility for his work,” said Tim Blum, co-founder of the gallery. “We clearly recognized that Lonnie has been producing, doing, exhibiting and contributing to art for four decades, and she fits very well into the gallery’s program.”

After moving to Atlanta in 2010, Holley began composing and performing music. His voice in the five albums he has released is deep and gentle and soothing, so it’s easy to forget that his songwriting – like his art – is out of date.

“It’s about the brain – the same brain that produces the music produces the visual art. I call it “brainsmithing,” “he said before going on stage at the Parrish to perform a few songs the night his art show opened.

“His voice stays in your head,” said Gingeras, who was in the small audience.

At 71, Holley is full of energy and ambition. He flew around the world and performed at concerts before the Covid-19 pandemic ended his itinerary. A big show organized by Blum & Poe is planned for next year in Los Angeles. He is restless, relentless; he just keeps going. Sometimes it even seems like he is forgetting how old he actually is. During the interview, he said, “I can’t see an old person trying to cross the street and offering no help.”

In the final scene of “I Sneaked Off the Slave Ship,” Holley is shown after pictures of blacks from different generations who play, dance and pray, hold the hand of a much older man and help him out of church.

Though Holley has come into conflict with the city of Birmingham (their airport authority destroyed his art garden in 1997 while expanding his territory, and received $ 165,000 in compensation after a long litigation), he shies away from overt political talk. “I don’t want to talk about skin,” he said when asked how he felt as a black man in the de Kooning house in an area where a different story than his is looming.

Instead, he stood to watch the shadows of the immense light pouring in from the glass skylights and windows and falling on a cluster of worn shoes and metallic feathers. It was noon and his own shadow interfered as he got up.

“This is memory,” he said, pointing to canvases with shimmering silhouettes of spray paint. “Everything is memory. Every face in these paintings. They are all people – especially women – who have supported me. Look at that big beautiful eye. My grandmother Momo. My mother, mom. Queens. “

And these faces, lives that have held up his life despite all beginnings, that have been preserved in his work on quilts and glow in his canvases, permeate everything and roll into one another like waves of the sea.

All that wasn’t white: Lonnie Holley at the Elaine de Kooning House

Until September 6, the Parrish Museum, Water Mill, NY

Lonnie Holley: Tangled up in de Kooning’s fence

Through August 29th, South Etna Montauk Foundation, 6 South Etna Avenue, Montauk, NY; info@southetnamontauk.org