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Thumbs Up for Mother Universe

Documentary Film Screening | April 26-29, 2021

Lonnie Holley in his studio 2018

Lonnie Holley in his studio 2018

After the world gave up on Lonnie Holley, the universe sent him the gift of art.

Filmed over 20 years, Thumbs Up for Mother Universe, tells Lonnie Holley’s story, revealing how one man’s instinct to create has enabled him to succeed against all odds - a journey from garbage dumps and prison camps, to festival stages and The Met.

Born, one of 27 children in Jim Crow Alabama, Holley was stolen away as an infant and sold for a pint of whiskey. Growing up in grinding poverty and abuse on society’s margins left its scars. At age 28, Holley discovers making things quiets the demons that haunt him to this day.

He begins to make art out of what the rest of us throw away—trash, garbage and debris. Now, nearing 70 years of age, his artwork sits in the Smithsonian, the National Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while his music has garnered international critical acclaim for its stirring soulful depth. Thumbs Up for Mother Universe tells the story of how Lonnie Holley overcame the longest of odds to become an unlikely art superstar.

Thumbs Up for Mother Universe will be available to watch on-demand from April 26-29, 2021.

Tickets are free and open to the public. 

This feature-length documentary traces the dramatic life of Lonnie Holley from the basest poverty and educational opportunities to his recognition as a revered visual artist and musician. The film will also reveal Holley’s creative process—his insights into conservation, ecology and the environment, and his sources of deep inspiration rooted in southern life and African American history and culture.

After the world gave up on Lonnie Holley, the Universe sent him the gift of art. This film tells how Holley overcame all odds to become an unlikely art superstar. Lonnie B. Holley has been described as an outsider, a poet, a con man, a prophet, a hustler, a visionary artist, a junkman and a shaman. Foremost, this 64-year-old African American artist and musician from Birmingham, Alabama is an American original. Born the seventh of 27 children, Holley’s childhood is the stuff of novels. At 18-months-old he is given to another woman who in turn sells him into servitude for a pint of whiskey. He is raised in a juke joint as ‘Tunky’ MacIlroy, unaware of his true identity. By age five he is forced to work full time and savagely beaten for any shirking of his duties. At age 8 he discovers his true identity and sets out to find his family. It is a complex journey that takes him to New Orleans (when he ‘hobos’ a ride on the wrong train), incarceration in the Mount Meigs Industrial School for Negro Children—where he is again beaten close to death—and finally, at age 17, reconciliation with his family.

As an adult at age 28, with no training or guidance, Holley starts carving ‘core sand’—an industrial by-product of Birmingham’s blast furnaces. The stark power of his work attracts the attention of a local TV crew and soon his sculptures are in the Smithsonian. Today his paintings, assemblages of found objects and carvings are in museums and collections worldwide. Yet Holley still lives on the margins. Eschewing worldly goods, he lives to make art.

In 2012 Holley, who has always sung for his own entertainment, is pulled into a studio. The resulting recording leads to a European tour. In December 2013, The Chicago Sun Times names Holley’s second album #2, behind Kanye West, and Washington Post music critic Chris Richards names Holley’s first record the #4 album of 2013. Richards describes Holley’s sound as “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.” His 2018 recording, Mith, resulted in further critical acclaim and a four-continent world tour.

George King, Produce/Director
George King is a writer/producer/director of nonfiction film, television and radio projects. His work has consistently won national and international awards (Peabody, Cine Golden Eagles, Golden Reels, nominated for Prix Italia, etc.) and garnered revues in the U.S. national and regional press (CNN, NYT, L.A Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, etc.). 

King’s work addresses diverse subjects including race, civil rights, art & culture, the environment, labor, education, poverty, housing, and community development. He has always involved broad community participation to ensure the work accurately reflects historical and cultural truths. in this documentary, in addition to community screenings, King also worked closely with African American colleagues such as artist/activist Charmaine Minniefield, and filmmakers Sam Pollard and Lewis Erskine as a core team.

Amy Linton, Co-Produce/Editor
Ms Linton is an Emmy-award winning member of the Producers Guild of America. She began her career as an editor and still works in that capacity. One of her earlier credits as an editor, the critically-acclaimed Daughters of the Dust was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry. Ms Linton’s producing credits include: AKA Doc Pomus; Robert Shaw--Man of Many Voices; Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story; and Sacco and Vanzetti. She first collaborated with producer George King and story editor Sam Pollard on the 2000 PBS documentary Goin’ to Chicago.

Charmine Minniefield/Co-Producer
Ms Minniefield is an artist, activist, and professor at Atlanta’s Spelman College. Drawing from indigenous traditions, her work centers around African and African American ritual from a feminist perspective. Utilizing historical images, stories and places, Ms Minniefield seeks, reclaims and retells lost narratives. From charcoal to acrylic on canvas; from digital mixed media and video projection to site specific installation and public art, her work ritually celebrates women while conversing between the past and the present, and between spirit space and the physical. She has also served tas a producer and arts administrator for nearly 20 years, holding positions with such arts organizations as the National Black Arts Festival, the High Museum of Art, Fulton County Department of Art and Culture, Foxfire, and Flux Projects.

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Media Arts (4), NEA Southeast Media Fellowship (3), NEA Inter-Arts/ Rockefeller Inter-disciplinary Fellowship (2), Corporation for Public Broadcasting, British Film Institute, Arts Council of Great Britain, National Endowment for the Humanities (4), Mississippi Arts Commission, Georgia Council for the Arts, California Arts Council, Georgia Humanities Council, Illinois Humanities Council, Tennessee Humanities Council, Missouri Humanities Council, City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs, Fulton County Arts Council, City of Atlanta Mayor's Fellow in the Arts, 2006 IMAGE award (with N.Y. filmmaker Spike Lee.) Lubo Fund, Idea Capital.

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