The Scrolls
On view through Nov. 28
City Gallery at Waterfront Park
34 Prioleau St.

Constructions by Gena Grant
On view through Dec. 2
City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre
133 Church St.

Talk about your open-ended questions. Charleston printmaker Mary Walker sent materials to artists and studios with the loosest possible theme — “Why?” — and got a powerful response. In each region that Walker approached, the works on paper were connected as a scroll. Many of these scrolls have a common thread: the horrors of war, the death of U.S. troops overseas, human rights and wrongs.

The cohesion in the show — on view at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park through next weekend — is particularly remarkable because the work comes from several different parts of the U.S., including Savannah, Columbia, and Chicago, as well as Italy and Iraq. The styles and quality vary, with woodcuts and photos nestling next to lithographs and poems. A few of the submissions, like Scott Brooks’ “Liberty Takes a Holiday,” are not new. Others were created specially for the project. But the artists all answer Walker’s question with great passion.

Some of the most heartfelt pieces come not from a major city but from McClellanville, S.C. “Embrace,” a woodcut by John McWilliams, shows a shark circling a drowning figure in a stormy sea, aptly capturing the swirling turmoil of the waves and the panic felt by the swimmer.

Artists from D.C. take a more obvious, politicized route. In Mark Planisek’s “The Truth,” a hand-painted collage, Bush has a devil’s tongue, Cheney has a dollar sign on his forehead, and Rumsfeld’s a vampire. Andrea Schamau’s “Eyes Wide Open” is a photographic record of a traveling exhibition using thousands of tagged combat boots, each pair representing a soldier killed in Iraq. Then there’s Brooks’ “Liberty Takes a Holiday,” a classically-inspired oil painting depicting a crucified Lady Liberty. These works don’t seek to explain “why?”, exactly, but they’re determined to get viewers thinking for themselves.

Often, the more symbolic, less literal responses are the most powerful. Several of the artworks are from Iraq, where contemporary artists got excited about the project and sent back a scroll each, rather than one collaborative effort. These range from the abstract, huddled forms of Jaafar Khadar, rushed as if done in a battle lull, to an unpretentious effort from Asaad Al Saghir that resembles something the Children of the Corn might draw after watching Apocalypse Now. Best of all is Al Airubai’s work with sepia ink and sand, producing beautiful dark brown hieroglyphs.

For those who missed the Iraqi exhibition at Folly Beach’s Studio Open earlier this year, there’s a second chance to see some of those pieces on the second floor of the City Gallery. Although the show’s not a distinct part of the Scrolls project, the contributing artists from Iraq are represented. With more room to breathe than in Studio Open, the paintings have a strong impact and show a mix of experimental styles. There are dashes of Mondrian, Picasso, and Miro, a sample of the way Western art techniques have seeped into the Middle East and inspired artists there.

The Waterfront Park gallery’s little sister at the Dock Street Theatre is also exhibiting weird and wistful work. Gena Grant is a Mt. Pleasant-based artist who uses reeds and deconstructed baskets to make some unusual sculptures. She calls several of them “spires,” as they rise from a solid base on the floor and taper to a point. Smaller pieces are displayed on pedestals, and they capture the swirls and textures of woven baskets.

The best thing about this show is its diversity. Grant has twisted the reeds into shapes that look unique, although they still retain a degree of their natural form. The sculptures take on different personalities, wild or stiff. One might resemble an old lady, complete with white hair trailing to the floor. In another example, leaning fronds acquire the movement of a dancer. Grant also uses pizza boxes as canvasses for a couple of her drawings, giving a harvest sun an Aboriginal spiral. The unraveled baskets and rescued boxes make this art a cool instance of recycling.