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Thumbs Up for Mother Universe

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Lonnie Holley, his hands adorned with rings and silver charms, wove synthetic twine around animal bones. At his feet was a collection of objects that he’d picked up along the South side beach of Horn Island, the federally designated wilderness site just ten miles off the Mississippi coast.

“These things can rise again,” said Holley. “And they shall rise again…”

Middle and high school students from nearby Moss Point and eastern Jackson County passed behind him in the distance, conducting their own beachcombing explorations and carrying found material – gnarled tree roots, sun-bleached; shells and plastic bottles; all the detritus of a modern world that the island traps – as Lonnie Holley put it – like a hind-catcher’s mitt. Horn Island is a mirror reflecting what Holley called “the game of life” that sends so much material – organic and manmade alike – floating in the waves.

Lonnie Holley, whose work has been exhibited and is collected by major museums across the country and the world, was here as part of a four-day artist residency project called “Barrier Reclamation: Lonnie Holley and the Modern Wilderness.” Designed to bridge the gaps between communities, materials, and contemporary landscapes, the project enlisted the hands of eighteen student-artists who collaborated to create a sculpture garden in front of the Museum that gave voice to histories expansive and personal through objects past and present.

Lonnie Holley is sixty-nine years old, and he managed admirably in the sweltering midday heat of the island. On the way out, on the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum’s Schooner, Holley – a musician as well as a renowned visual artist – sang improvised tunes to the students; “Sail me, sail me away…”

He was serving multiple roles during this four-day residency at the Museum. He was educator and mentor, sharing with the group details of a traumatic upbringing that he seeks to exorcise through exuberant joy and creativity. He was investigator of the contemporary land, sourcing his own materials just as he supervised the students’ search. And he was an extension of Walter Anderson, who found on the island a wellspring of inspiration that made him one of the South’s most celebrated – and elusive – creators.

Materials came from the surrounding neighborhood, the homes of students, and of course, Horn Island, which provided things like heavy rope, driftwood, buoys, and bones. One student, Bryan, held up a tree limb wrapped in thick vine. “It reminds me,” he said of the fused shape, “of friendship.”

“The times that they really put forth their focus and ability, they got so serious,” Holley recalled “… You couldn’t have pulled them away with a tractor-trailer truck.”

Back on the mainland, the students broke into teams, each conceiving and executing a sculpture of impressive scale. They handled tools, engineered, and problem-solved. Each brought his or her own pieces of narrative – represented by forgotten toys, broken hair bows, and buttons that they had outgrown or discarded – and united them with evocative organic materials that spoke to the uncertain future of a threatened environment. A large bundle of roots, washed up as driftwood on Horn Island, was a symbol of intertwined fates.

“No matter what we are as a people, we have roots of our ancestors,” said Holley. “Other generations of other types – our roots can get tangled up in there. When you’re talking about the mixture of human-kind, or humanity being mixed in the American attitude, I really loved the way the sculptures ended up being a message to America and beyond.”

Outgoing Presence of Possessions
Dillan P., Mallori O., Breland P., Bryan R., and Armani T.
Door, belt, drawer, whiskey bottle, buttons, toys, ropes, light fixture, shell, record, feathers, bamboo, can, plexiglass, silicone, baseball

The Museum’s effort to take education beyond the classroom echoes the journeys of Walter Anderson, who rowed out to the barrier islands and spent weeks on end making participatory art in an effort to transition away from the “dominant mode on shore” – the expectations and rigidity of modern life that stunted his connection to nature and the universe.

After Walter Anderson died in 1965 and the family discovered his secret cache of prized Horn Island watercolors, his wife reportedly said that her husband was such a great artist because he never ceased to be a beachcomber.

“He died in 1965,” said Holley. “… I was just fifteen years old, and I was probably just getting out of Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at that time period. But I had been … almost the same identical examiner as Mr. Anderson had been towards materials. But he had a big old island, and I had ditches, creeks, alleys, and off the beaten paths of Birmingham, Alabama.”

The Pressure of Hope
Jon’Tae M., Destiny M., Aminah C., Barack B., Janiah H., Tedasya H., and Zion M.
Air conditioner, rope, plastic bottles, coconut, Styrofoam buoy, electric cable, doorbell, water bottle, sand, Clorox bottle, oil bottle, toy car

On the final day of the project, students completed their sculptures and toured the Museum to learn about curatorial practice. The teams worked with curator Mattie Codling to design interpretive materials and object labels for their outdoor exhibition. During a culminating reception and program, students took the mic alongside Lonnie Holley, collaborator Matt Arnett, and scholar Charles Reagan Wilson. They communicated for themselves what they had seen and made. And when it was said and done, they shared with the Museum some of what they learned.

“I never imagined myself … sculpting, and that was a really good experience. It kind of motivated me a little bit more. In high school, you don’t really get noticed that much for doing art. And I really appreciated that.” – Jon’Tae

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” – Addisyn

“I usually just throw stuff in the trash that I’m not using anymore. But he said, ‘Don’t throw it away … Just make something with it.’” – Levori

“I’m very proud of myself for being able to do all this, and being able to make my sculpture, and being able to put it here at this museum.” – Breland

The Aged Tree
Jonathan S., Levori W., Addisyn H., Tracie S., Alexeona W., and Tamia H.
Roots, wooden planks, plunger, bow, shoe laces, crab shells, seashells, bones, hose, drawer, paper lantern, railings, plastic bottles, string

In the weeks prior to the project – and in the weeks following – Holley and Arnett toured the globe: to Europe, Tasmania, New Zealand, Massachusetts, and beyond. Holley made it clear to the students that showing up for them in Mississippi was as important as any of his other engagements, when he took the stage to perform before hundreds and made appearances at museums and contemporary art centers. Every space is important. And the children were his space force.

“Whatever space you are … If I said, ‘come on, join me, let’s take care of this space,’ then that’s my space force, okay?” Lonnie said to the students outside of the Museum. “And I thank you all very much for being a part of my space force.”

The project endeavored to engage and overcome barriers; to reclaim materials from forgotten or underutilized spaces. Some of these spaces were small and nondescript; others, like Horn Island, are iconic. All are part of something larger and more connected, all have value, and all deserve our attention. This philosophy of interconnected meaning was reinforced again and again by Holley’s mantra that became the students’ refrain – Thumbs up for Mother Universe.

This project was executed in partnership with the Jackson County Civic Action Committee and the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum.

Funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mississippi Arts Commission. Additional support is provided through The Mary and Edsel Ruddiman Endowment for the Walter Anderson Museum of Art and Chevron.

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