A Lonnie Holley Epic in the Making

George King and Lonnie Holley
Filmmaker George King and artist Lonnie Holley in Holley’s signature “thumbs-up for Mother Universe” handshakes, Nashville, c. 2013. (Photo: Travis Ward)

George King has been an integral part of the Atlanta film community and cultural scene since 1986. A writer, director and producer, King has created such memorable documentary portraits as Ten Thousand Points of Light (1991), a quirky homage to the Townsend family of Stone Mountain and their annual Christmas lights extravaganza; Goin’ to Chicago (2000), which focuses on the post-WWII migration of African-Americans from the rural South to Northern cities, and Who’s That Stranger (2006), a profile of musician Kasper Delmar “Stranger” Malone, a Guinness World Book of Records holder for his 79-year-career in the record industry. King is also well known for his Peabody award-winning public radio series Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, an oral history of the Southern civil rights movement and the music of those times.

But his most ambitious project to date might be the one he is working on now — and for the past 21 years. Tentatively titled Thumbs Up for Mother Universe: The Lonnie Holley Story, King’s intimate portrait of the self-taught artist has been an on-and-off side project since he first met Holley in the early 1990s, when he journeyed to Alabama to view Holley’s sprawling outdoor art installation near the Birmingham airport. Over the past two decades King has amassed a prodigious amount of footage of Holley and his work and has managed to whittle it down to a two-hour cut. He launched an Indiegogo campaign on November 6 and hopes to raise enough funding to complete the documentary by Spring 2018.

Holley was fairly well-known on the contemporary and Outsider art scenes, having had exhibitions at the Birmingham Museum of Art and at James Fuentes gallery in New York, among others. But since a 2014 profile in The New York Times, Holley has enjoyed a surge in media and public interest for not just his art but his haunting, idiosyncratic music, which is available on Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital label. Although there have been a few other films made about Holley, such as Marco Williams’s 30-minute short Lonnie Holley: The Truth of the Dirt, no one completed a full-length film on the artist. King is poised to be the first.

Lonnie Holley, Keyboard &Tambourine
Lonnie Holley recording tracks for the first time, Gees Bend, Al. c. 2006. (Photo: Matt Arnett)

“I noticed that a lot of untutored artists actually got into art because they were disabled in some way and they have time to do it,” King states. “And some are easily patronized as uneducated, elderly and frail. They get patted on the head while somebody offering $20 dollars goes off with piece of art,” he says. “The thing that attracted me to Lonnie Holley was, here is a strong black man fully in command of his powers. He isn’t aged, he isn’t frail and he’s vocal … and he has theories that are global and intergalactic and spiritual about why and how he is doing what he’s doing.”

King considers Holley a very sophisticated conceptualist and his film will offer an insider view of Holley’s creative processes. “Lonnie is a performance artist and by that I mean it’s the actual making of the objects that’s important for him,” King observes. “In a way that’s the end state. Although he loves people to look at the work, he doesn’t make it in a vacuum. These works are like his children and he loves them all.” King describes Holley’s  “nightmare childhood” and how making things quieted the demons in his head. “It is literally PTSD of the worst kind. It’s personal violence. It’s grinding poverty. That’s what he grew up with.”

Painting the Hand of my Grandfather, Lonnie Holley
In Lonnie Holley’s art environment in Birmingham, c. 1985. (Photo: William Arnett)

It’s no secret that Holley’s childhood and young adult years were marked by extreme deprivation and hardship and that his entry into art was in reaction to a personal tragedy. When two of his sister’s children died in a house fire, Holley couldn’t afford memorial markers, so he got some sandstone and created these baby tombstones. This was the beginning of Holley’s journey into an inner world of creativity and discovery.

The challenge for King is how to illustrate the traumatic events that shaped the artist’s early years. “His childhood stories are amazing but of course there are no visuals,” he says. “I hate reenactments because they rarely work. If you stylize it or introduce some visual mode of telling the story, it’s also very easy to diminish the power of the story.”

King has considered various approaches to gaps in Holley’s biography. “We’re trying to come up with an aesthetic that works the same way as when someone tells you a story and you mentally fill in the visuals.” He thinks he has found a solution in shadow puppetry. “It has strings and levers and things and looks almost like 19th-century toys. They have a slightly sinister element to them, almost like a child’s dreams—or the tales of the Brothers Grimm, because these are not stories of joy and happiness.”

Regardless of how King resolves the issue of depicting past events, he has plenty of material to draw from when it comes to capturing Holley in the spontaneous act of creation. For example, King happened to film a lunchtime concert at the Rialto Theater where Holley performed improvisational duets with cellist Dave Eggar, who was a child prodigy and doubles for Yo-Yo Ma in the Silk Road Ensemble. “I’m watching them, spellbound. Dave appears to be checking out the street scene outside, riffing along with Lonnie. When Lonnie changes something on the keyboard, Dave’s right there with him—doesn’t miss a beat. No rehearsals or extemporaneous lyrics. It’s one of the most interesting musical collaborations I think I’ve ever witnessed.”

Wire 5, Lonnie Holley
Lonnie Holley, Underneath the Slave Ship, wire sculpture, at James Fuentes Gallery, NYC, Oct. 2017.

King has also captured compelling documentation of Holley creating what he calls “placements,” temporary installations that might be preserved only as a photograph before being disassembled. More recent footage includes Holley in his south Atlanta studio constructing a series of intricate wire sculptures and other pieces. King is also working to secure a license for footage never seen in the U.S., including a clip from Dutch television that shows Holley playing the piano on a beach.

King is still wrestling with how to blend linear and non-linear elements, and how to balance Holley’s art-making with his music career. “His visual art may be more celebrated and more substantial, but you can’t give short shrift to his music,” says King.

5th Child, Lonnie Holley
Lonnie Holley, 5th Child Burning, assemblage of found objects.

What is most important to him is to create a portrait of Holley that is unflinchingly honest and utilizes Lonnie’s voice, words and thoughts. “I’d like to expose people to a different way of looking at reality, to challenge their expectations of what art is and who gets to make it, says King, adding “and to celebrate Holley’s remarkable and inspiring journey from the basest poverty and abuse to his emergence as an internationally renowned artist and musician.”

Click here to donate to King’s Indiegogo campaign.

Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening and other favorite topics for various digital publications.

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