When his sister's two children died in a house fire, Alabama native Lonnie Holley's family didn't have enough money for tombstones, so he carved them himself out of sandstone. That was his first work of art.
It was also the only way Holley says he could channel his debilitating grief.
Holley continued his sandstone carvings and began to incorporate found objects into his work. Then, Richard Murray of the Birmingham Museum of Art discovered Holley's work, giving him a break that would launch a 30-year career as an internationally exhibiting professional artist, most notably in the Smithsonian Institution exhibit More than Land and Sky: Art From Appalachia.
Holley's work will be on display at Institute 193 from this week through June in an exhibit called Stepping in the Footprint. It will feature sculptural assemblages of found objects arranged in site-specific installations as well as spray paintings on cloth and photography prints.
Chase Martin, director of Institute 193, says the exhibit will expose Lexingtonians to a genre of art by Southern blacks that has been overlooked by art establishments until recently.
"His work is a great example of so-called 'outsider art' of the black American South," Martin wrote in an email. "Holley and other artists like him emphasize improvisation and make use of repurposed objects to produce work that is aesthetically sophisticated and deeply symbolic."
For Holley, repurposing objects is about more than transforming something old into something new; it is about environmental conscientiousness. The exhibit received an EcoArt from the Lexington Department of Environmental Quality and Public Works.
"My thing as far as being an artist is to try to think about what has happened to our environment," Holley says.
"Think of all the mud, the grit, the dirt, that stuff that somebody else throws away as trash, garbage and debris and calls it junk — we have to recycle this material, we have to do the very best we can and stop calling it all of those names," Holley says. "Let's put it in the category of material and try that."
One of 27 children, Holley, 63, started noticing the amount of refuse polluting nature at a young age. When he was a boy, he says he would notice trash while crawling through the sewer to visit the state fairgrounds near his home.
"I try to tell people that I was in the ditches and the creeks where everything was flushed away," he says. "I was the one who was looking at all this trash and debris in the earliest stages and now there's so much more. Think about all this being in the ditches, around the ground. We've done some real harmful stuff to Mother Nature"
The work exhibited by Institute 193 represents a small fraction of Holley's cumulative work. In addition to his visual artwork as a painter and sculptor, he also writes poetry and is a musician. He recorded an album called Just Before Music in 2012 with Grammy Award-winning record company Dust-to-Digital and released a retrospective book in 2004 called Do We Think Too Much? I Don't Think We Can Ever Stop.
Holley will be performing his music during the exhibition and will also lead workshops at the Sayre School and Bryan Station High School.
"We were excited to bring his work to Lexington," Martin wrote, "because Holley's art practice emerges from a cultural tradition that has rarely been seen or celebrated in this area."
IF YOU GO
Lonnie Holley: 'Stepping In the Footprint'
When: April 19-June 15. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and by appointment
Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone
Learn more: Institute193.org
Musical performance: 7-9 p.m. April 18
Opening reception: 5-8 p.m. April 19
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.