Timothy Pakron and Benjamin Hollingsworth use words like “grassroots” to describe the growing contemporary art scene in Charleston, but in the same breath, they say their work is not very “Charleston-esque.” In neighboring downtown studios, these two artists create works that are innovative, thought provoking, and unexpected. “I want to let people know that I’m always evolving,” Pakron says.

The opportunity to exhibit at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery inspired Hollingsworth and Pakron to develop the idea for Folklore. They wanted to play with the concept of reinterpreting traditional subjects and techniques. Pakron says, “My job as an artist is to continue these traditions and make them my own.”

In his senior year at the College of Charleston, Pakron resisted defining himself as a painter or photographer and was frustrated because he felt like he had to choose. So he decided to combine the two. Displaying a negative on a wall of his darkroom, he paints directly onto the image, creating a drip effect. This seemingly effortless technique is actually a 10-step process that results in minimal and haunting portraits. After a successful debut at this summer’s Contemporary Charleston exhibit at the City Gallery, Pakron wanted to evolve his process, and says that the latest pieces are less controlled and more raw.

“Addiction,” a large black and white painting, depicts his twin sister Meggie. A dark image with layers of thick paint represents his sister’s struggle with drugs and how it affected their relationship. “The best work I’ve ever done is really personal,” Pakron says. The photo that was the inspiration for the painting was taken the summer before he and his sister went to college, and it captured the innocence of her face. Over the years, the painting got darker and darker, and as his sister reached her first year of sobriety, Pakron realized it was time to let the painting go. He likes that the image is confrontational; he’s comfortable with making the viewer uncomfortable. “The painting represents the beauty of her struggle,” he says. “I wanted her eyes to give the sense of exhaustion and defeat.”

The five photographs in his series are of his sister Meggie and their mother. The brushstrokes are visible, drawing attention to the eyes, the lips, and the edges of the melting face. “I always like to reveal the eyes,” he says. “If it’s successful, you feel like there’s this person behind the image.” Pakron says the highest praise is when people tell him what they thought about his work after the show.

Benjamin Hollingsworth looks at every show as if it could be his last. He recently returned to Charleston after living in New York City, drawn by the contemporary grassroots scene here. A self-taught artist, Hollingsworth says there is more to art than just the physical act. “Twenty percent of art is making it, the other 80 percent is researching, talking about it, and sometimes just sitting there, looking at it.” Working all day, every day, he gets irritated when people tell him he’s going to burn out. “I think you’ve just got to find what you love and do the shit out of it.”

Hollingsworth’s large-scale mixed media paintings portray Jesus on the cross, the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, Death, and the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. Influenced by Caravaggio’s crucifixion, Hollingsworth wanted to reinterpret these iconic images with his own distinct, abstract style. His series includes an image of Mary and the infant Jesus with yellow spray-painted lines that frame the solemn pair, a detailed skeleton bending on his knees in supplication, and an image of Jesus hanging from the cross surrounded by bananas, apples, and flowers. His use of color adds a sense of playfulness to this historically dark subject. Hollingsworth’s images are both surreal and sensual.

Reinterpreting Christian iconography provided Hollingsworth with the chance to see how far he could take something. “I don’t want to feel stagnant or boxed in,” he says. “Making art is a huge learning process.” Like a game of chess, he develops his moves as the game progresses. “I’m going to do this stuff whether it sells or not. I want my work to be open-ended for the viewer, I want to leave something to the imagination.” Although he shies away from offering personal insights into his paintings, Hollingsworth explains that he grew up going to church in the South, but insists that he is not preaching. “Am I preaching or am I showing you art?” he asks. Wanting to create a sense of ambiguity, Hollingsworth resists interpretation, saying the work is his retelling of a traditional story.

With Hollingsworth’s contemporary, iconic splashes of color on one side of the gallery, and Pakron’s stark, painterly family portraits on the other, the viewer can draw their own interpretations of what Folklore means. One artist communicates a personal struggle, while the other doesn’t want to communicate anything at all. True to the tradition of folklore, these innovative artists have embraced age-old stories and made them their own.