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Lonnie Holley: Artist, Visionary, Shrimper

Published in Gourmet Live 06.29.11
Molly O’Neill visits with an Alabama artist who is a self-professed instrument of ingredients—his barbecued shrimp recipe might prove him right

Lonnie Holley cooks the same way he makes art. There are no recipes, no drawings, no plans. There is hunger and the burn to make a difference, there are ingredients and found objects. Holley, who is 61 years old and a resident of Harpersville, Alabama, picks and scavenges, and then he stands back. He listens until the foraged booty tells him what it wants to be.

It can be decades before he understands what message that, say, a bundle of metal fencing, a stack of twigs, some Mardi Gras beads, and an American flag are trying to deliver. Food, on the other hand, announces itself immediately. He doesn’t mind rodent gnawing, rust, or mold on his art supplies, but Mr. Holley, a 61–year old visionary artist whose work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Folk Art Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the White House, is not one to let edibles rot.

“You reach out and grab whatever there is,” he said, “It’s a summer day and there are eggplants or tomatoes. It’s a lucky day and there is chicken or crawfish. It’s a hog–killing day and there is sausage, maybe peppers and onion, okra. When rice is in the air, that is jambalaya day. You can’t change that. You can change how you respond to it.”

Most days, Mr. Holley hunts, gathers, and cooks for his 15 children as well as assorted neighbors, artists, and art collectors and anyone else who wanders by. His approach is simple. “You just stay out of the way and let the cooking move through you,” he said.

What moves through Mr. Holley is fiercely, urgently, and devotedly American. He is convinced that anything is possible and that the best is yet to come. Were there a museum for culinary magic, he’d be there, exhibiting his own gumbos, soups and stews, jambalaya, dirty rice, and barbecued shrimp. No two batches would ever be alike.

Holley cooks in order to be fully present in a particular moment. This may be why his iterations of familiar New Orleans specialties wake you up, rattle your preconceptions, and make the world seem bigger.

“You pull a little of this and a little of that, whatever you can find and you build, just like you do a building, a sculpture, an installation, a painting,” he said. “You build layers.”

The immediacy of his found–ingredient cooking helps explain the power of Holley’s riffs on Cajun and Creole classics. But ingredients are only part of the story of any icon of American regional cooking. Ingredients describe a particular place, its land, its weather, its bounty and surfeit. The form and flavor of the dish, on the other hand, carry the history of the people who lived there, where they came from, how they made do, what they aspired toward.

When new life is breathed into a “classic,” it’s usually because the chef survived a mythic American challenge and lived to cook about it. Holley is no exception. An Alabama native, he was the seventh–born of 27 children. He lived in a series of foster homes, spent time in the Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, Alabama, and ran away to New Orleans when he was 14 years old.

“I slept where I could and worked in restaurants—that’s where you could get jobs,” he told me. “I learned to cook by inhaling and sweating, listening and being hungry. Then cooking taught me that I am an artist.”

Mr. Holley’s studio is also a storage space for the materials that he scavenges for his assemblages. Towers of magazines and newspapers, mountains of auto parts, door frames, window frames, vinyl records, broken dolls, fishing gear, pottery shards, aluminum cans, glass bottles, mannequins, taxidermy, prosthetic devices, desktop computers, and a Goodwill store’s worth of shoes and clothing rose before me, like walls around an ancient city.

“Hello?” My greeting disappeared into the thick, walls of other people’s stuff. Any sudden move, I feared, could topple it all. I inched forward along the narrow warren that wound through the warehouse. Waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I tested the floor with the tip of my sandal before committing to the next step.

Gradually, I became aware of order in the chaos, a system organized by shapes, color, material, and function. There were narrow breaks in the walls that gave way to open dens, each containing a work in progress. Holley was standing in one such cul–de–sac. He was gazing at an American flag that flapped branchlike from a trunk of rolled fencing.

Early–July sun had heated the low–lying warehouse to the temperature of a slow–bake oven. Holley was shirtless and appeared to be in a trance. Then, as if a month had not elapsed since we last spoke, he turned toward me, stared over his half–glasses and continued to tell me the story of his art and his cooking.

“My sister and her children were burned up in a fire in 1970. We did not have money to make the right send–off, couldn’t even afford headstones for the babies. I was sick in my heart. There was a foundry near her house and in their trash heap I found this soft sandstone–like block. They’d used it in metal casting and then throw out. I carved the headstones out of it. That is why people call me the Sandman.’ That was the beginning.

“Nothing is trash, there is art, there is eating. If you take what you find, the art moves through you. It is not your business; you are the tube, the wind tunnel, the empty pipe, the land that the wind sweeps up. ” Holley tossed his head back and opened his arms like a tent–revivalist about to perform a healing. The beads in his long dreads jingled like tiny church bells. “This morning there was shrimp hanging from the sky,” he exclaimed.

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