Lonnie Holley was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1950, the seventh of 27 children. He persevered through a difficult life of poverty, depression and familial strife. He began making art in 1979, carving tombstones for his sister’s two children who died in a house fire from blocks of a soft sandstone-like industrial by-product of cast iron molding that were discarded in piles by a foundry near his sister’s house.
Holley believes that divine intervention led him to the material and inspired his artwork. Holley’s first work consisted primarily of gravestones, but it was not long before his yard near the Birmingham Airport was overflowing with thousands of his sandstone sculptures. He later began working with other found materials such as discarded wire, scrap materials, and wooden objects and eventually began to paint.
Holley first gained wider attention for his art in 1981, when he took his work to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The director of the Museum was so impressed that he contacted a friend at the Smithsonian Institution, who was organizing an exhibition of Appalachian artists. Holley was included in this exhibition, More Than Land and Sky, which traveled to museums throughout the region.