Since the 1980s, Southern folk artist Lonnie Holley has been turning rubbish into art. He's transformed discarded televisions, broken record players and frayed bits of rope into metaphorical expressions of African American culture and commentaries on the world around him. A recent New York Times article called Holley "the Insider's Outsider."
It's an apt description of a man who has explored every nook and cranny of art he's been interested in. Which has led the restless Holley to music.
As it's happened before, he's imprinted his personality, passion and critique into his work, which has led to rave reviews of his music and new fans.
The Guardian described Holley's performance on Just Before Music as "a unique, evolving lifeform" that sits "somewhere between the highly personalised social commentary of Gil Scott Heron, the revelatory folk-soul bliss of Terry Callier and the experimental deep-space blues of Sun Ra." Ranking it number four on his best music of 2013 list, Chris Richards said...hell. I'm just going to include the whole thing it's so good.
But it’s also a free jazz fever dream from the deep South, a babbling Baptist sermon from deep space, a lullaby for the end of the world, a songbook that’s frequently beautiful and occasionally frightening.
Atlanta based filmmaker George King has been following and documenting Holley's journey for two decades. A Peabody Award winning documentarian, whose work has been selected for the British National Archive, King has begun shaping that footage into a final film. In March, he launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the initial funds needed to finish this long gestating project.
We sent King a few questions to find out more about The Lonnie Holley Story, his approach, and his view on crowdfunding, and what's in it for Holley.
Can you give us quick little background on yourself, for those who may not know your work? As a documentary filmmaker, what interests you most?
I learned how to make films to try to change the world in positive ways—no really! And I'm still trying. I work exclusively on nonfiction media projects, which I see as an art form. I have lived and worked in the UK, NYC, San Francisco, and Atlanta.
I look for stories that are instructive and 'entertaining' (although not always in a 'fun' way). Stories engage audiences, but I am seeking to find those stories that also have the capacity to inform. Stories that challenge our assumptions about human interaction, politics, and culture—to look beyond what we think we know or understand. Much of this work has addressed civil and human rights, and justice. But I am also interested in music, humor, sport, language, and other themes.
First, is it true you've been following and documenting Lonnie's work for nearly two decades? What drew you to him originally? What do you want to share with your audience about Lonnie?
I have been filming visual artist and musician Lonnie Holley since 1995 or '96 (neither Lonnie or I can remember exactly!).
During that time he has been jailed, shot at by neighbors, and evicted from the land homesteaded by his grandfather. His famed “art environment” was bulldozed under, and much of his art stolen and destroyed. But somehow Lonnie has outwitted history, circumstance, and the ignorance of others to emerge as a star in the firmament of American culture.
First, the story is one of endurance, faith, and overcoming unfathomable odds to succeed. I want the audience to look beyond their assumptions about who makes art and why, and to consider the capacity for art to change our lives. Lonnie has a unique and remarkable intelligence, but little formal education, this film will inform our understanding of both.
Is there a particular approach you have in mind for this documentary? A framework of how you want to tell this story? Is that different from past work?
Every project is new to me. I try to find aesthetic treatments that emerge from the subject.
In this case the film is about art and creativity so it's an opportunity for creative visual and sound design. We will use myriad forms, reflecting Lonnie's recycling and use of found materials. We shot and acquired multiple film and video formats over the years, from Hi-8 to HD.
These will be incorporated with still photographs (we have access to unique and important images) and animation echoing Holley's use of material and cultural mash-ups. The animation, we are looking at a cut-out style merging the sensibilities of Romare Bearden and Terry Gilliam(!), will help visualize Holley's nightmare childhood.
You've dived into the crowdfunding pool with this project. How have you seen funding for documentaries change over the years? What excites you about crowdfunding? What worries you?
The funding for documentary filmmaking is in continuous flux. Television has always had tremendous influence, good and bad, on nonfiction filmmakers. Today, reality TV and the Internet have, I believe sadly, compromised complex, thoughtful work.
The funding environment is very competitive. I recall a conversation with a filmmaker who had won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and struggled to get his next film funded inside the United States. Right now I am in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign (please visit our campaign and throw a buck in the hat!).
I think crowd-funding is a terrific concept, but with everyone wanting to jump into the pool, it is difficult to support it all.
Lonnie performed at the kickoff event for your IndieGoGo campaign. He created original art for it. And, you've been following him around for awhile. He's obviously invested in the project. What does he hope to see come out of the documentary?
Lonnie makes art all the time—and that is ALL the time. But he doesn't make it to sell--although his art and music are his only source of income. He makes art to engage and teach people about African American history and culture, the environment, and other themes that are important to him. He makes art to leave a mark—I was here, I did this. And he makes art, as I see it, to quiet the pain of an anguished and loveless childhood, and because it is a satisfying outlet for his phenomenal energy.
Because sometimes the work is so ephemeral, whenever he makes something small or large he wants to document that it existed. He often leaves his art in woods, by the side of the road, or in one case, at the bottom of a river. Following him with a camera, I fulfill his documenting needs.
But by now we share a great deal of history. We have been down the creeks and ditches, walked the railroad tracks, visited the junkyards and thrift stores, and I am close to many of his family members. Lonnie wants this story told so people understand how and why he makes art, and why we should all engage our creativity and protect the planet. "Thumbs up for Mother Universe!"
The IndieGoGo campaign for The Lonnie Holley Story runs through April 26, 2014: igg.me/at/LonnieHolleyStory