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Soul of the Artist

Lonnie Holley brings song and sculpture to Massachusetts

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO

At the First Parish Church in Cambridge, artist Lonnie Holley sits next to the stage, molding a small piece of wire. While his manager, Matt Arnett, extolls Holley’s virtues to the audience, the artist remains quiet. When Holley finishes his miniature sculpture, he rises slowly and takes his place on center stage. When he opens his mouth to sing, it is as though an otherworldly force has overtaken the silent man, using him as a conduit for the music and the message.

Holley’s life as an artist began with tragedy. A house fire in 1979 took the lives of his niece and nephew. His sister didn’t have the money to purchase headstones, so Holley carved some from sandstone. From this grief, his career as a sculptor began. “He had been making art his whole life and never knew why,” says Arnett. “When he carved those stones, he realized the healing power.”

It wasn’t until much later that Holley began experimenting with sound, after finding an old Casio keyboard at a garage sale. Since his first recordings in 2012, Holley’s abstract sounds have developed a loyal following. He never performs the same composition twice, so what the audience hears in concert may not be the same as the recording they hear on Spotify. Each performance is a unique art experience, a private gift shared with those people in that place.

Visceral style

Last week’s First Parish Church performance was co-hosted by Non-Event, an experimental music series running in Boston since 2001, and Boston Hassle, a grassroots art news website. Holley’s music is ethereal in sound but the content firmly grounds itself in the present day. In one song Holley sings about his experience as an African American man, saying, “Always looking over my shoulder, ’cause I’m a suspect, in America I’m just a suspect.”

As he performs, Holley seems to be having a visceral physical reaction to the music. His head jerks back, his hands brace themselves against the air beneath him and his eyes stare widely, unblinkingly. Holley says to the packed house that he believes we were all brought to this space for a specific reason. If there is such a force at work, perhaps it is the same force that overtakes Holley at his keyboard, drawing the music from the still, quiet man like water erupting through the crack of a rock wall.

Holley’s music can be found on Spotify, and Non-Event will be hosting similar experimental artists on a monthly basis throughout the summer.

Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Holley’s joint sculpture exhibition with Dawn DeDeaux, titled “Thumbs Up for the Mothership,” is on view at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams through fall 2018.

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