Born the seventh of twenty-seven children, Lonnie “Sandman” Holley grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and spent much of his youth in foster homes and reform schools until he ran away to Louisiana at age 14. He eventually returned to Birmingham and worked as a short-order cook. In 1977, Holley suffered the catastrophic loss of two nieces who died in a house fire. As a result of this personal anguish, he attempted suicide. When his attempt failed, Holley “prayed to the Lord to take me to the top.” He said it was then that he received the divine inspiration to “make art!”
Holley began creating tombstones for the two nieces, then moved on to making small, abstract images of animals, faces and figures for children. He created a unique and unusual environment composed of sandstone carvings and sculptured assemblages made of steel, wire and board. His work “takes me to the top after I sunk so low,” he said. Holley has explored a number of different religions such as Islam, Christianity and spiritualism, and has educated himself in African philosophy. Holley’s assemblages and paintings tell stories to illustrate the philosophies he has developed concerning racial and social issues. “I try to get white people to love the spirit of the black man,” he said.