Self-Made: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Self-Made: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

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In some fashion or another, Ben Hollingsworth ’04 has always been an artist. For as long as he can remember, he’s looked at things a little bit differently. Seeing beauty in strange places. Finding opportunity in odd spaces. It’s just that the medium, the canvas upon which he creates, keeps changing.

by Mark Berry

photography by Gately Williams

He stares at this ghostly, almost numbing second skin. His thumb, caked in a polyurethane resin, circles slowly the white-tipped fingers on his right hand. Mesmerized by the counterclockwise, now clockwise motion, Ben Hollingsworth ’04 is lost in thought when one of his interns, Tommy Fox, calls to him to let him know that he’s done cleaning paint, prepping the canvases, sweeping the floor or whatever other chores he’s been doing around Hollingsworth’s converted warehouse space in Charleston’s Neck area.

Fox, a studio art major, has grasped pretty quickly Hollingsworth’s advice that he be efficient in everything he does. There had been this moment of intensity that first day of his internship as Hollingsworth gazed, unblinking, into Fox’s eyes: “Do it right, do it fast … fast as you can, fast as you can. Don’t waste a second.”

Fox waits patiently, laughing just a little bit to himself about those seconds wasting now, but excited for what’s next. While he’s not always enjoyed some of the grunt work around the studio, Fox appreciates Hollingsworth the artist, this renegade of color and material choices. Especially now, surrounded by these buckets of white goo, as Hollingsworth calls it. For a while, the place has seemed more laboratory than art studio as Hollingsworth and his interns experiment with various polyurethane resins to make molds recreating different pairs of shoes he’s had over the years.

“Yeah, man, great, cool,” mutters Hollingsworth, shaking out his hands, flakes like snow falling to the floor, his trance broken, with a smile as bright as the gleaming white sneaker molds strewn around him on several stained, flattened cardboard boxes– a surreal tableau of pristine decay, these empty, laceless shoes seemingly discarded by inner-city spacemen. “Yeah, let’s get to it.”

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And there’s a lot to get to. Over the next few weeks, Hollingsworth, monk-like in his devotion and isolation, will work relentlessly to get everything ready for Grace, his solo exhibition at Charleston’s City Gallery at Waterfront Park. In those caffeine- and nicotine-fueled days and nights leading up to the opening, he’ll finish a wide array of art – ideas and pieces he’s been working on for six months and inspired by the Lowcountry – such as a joggling board made from foam and bent as if by hurricane forces; impossibly stacked chairs and tables; a wooden beam wrapped in copper; ceramic sculptures evocative of human limbs; large-scale murals employing a variety of painting techniques; and a clothesline of vibrant fabric paintings, with one sporting a Confederate columbiad cannon. And then there are those shoes: 20 pairs of them, which he has meticulously painted, bent, stressed and broken in just so.

“Sometimes things need to be made just to be made,” Hollingsworth says about his art.

When the month-long exhibition opens in November 2012, many gallery goers linger beneath “A Higher Calling,” these shoes dangling from makeshift power lines. They read the materials used: enamel, galvanized steel cable and plastic tubing, paint, polyurethane resin and shoelaces. From the piece’s description, they know that this is not found art. And they marvel at the detail, from the worn treads to each shoe’s individual styling. But they don’t trust their eyes, not completely. This must be some artist’s sleight of hand, they think. Some joke he’s playing on us, the viewer. And they keep coming back to them, approaching them from different angles, different points of light. Because these shoes, so real, so distinctive, so familiar, look as if they’ve been plucked from the forgotten corner of a closet or perhaps even scavenged out of yesterday’s trash.

My Own Way

“Trash! Did you see that? Absolute trash!”

Ralph Lundy, head coach of the Cougars men’s soccer team, leans back in his chair, both hands on his head, and simply shrugs. There’s a lot of history, a lot of emotion, in that shrug. He watches the action in grainy video unfold again on the dropdown screen in the athletics conference room. “That play there is Ben Hollingsworth in a nutshell. He could take a bunch of junk – trash, really – and turn it into something memorable, something beautiful.”

This particular beautiful moment was a goal-scoring drive against Elon during the 2004 Southern Conference Tournament.

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Lundy leans forward, a finger pointing to the screen. “Ben’s first touch is terrible, just terrible. He should have taken that ball on the move on the ground. But you see, the ball pops up in his face. That shouldn’t happen. But what’s he do?” his voice rising, a hint of incredulity in his tone. “Ben improvises. He roofs it into space and then his third touch puts it in the back of the net. A brilliant shot with his left foot.”

On the screen, the defenders stand, arms out wide, a look of defeat and disbelief in their collective faces, the rival goalkeeper picking himself up slowly off the turf, while Hollingsworth, co-captain of the team, sheepishly smiles back at his teammates and trots nonchalantly, almost skipping, over to the corner flag to celebrate.

Lundy laughs, shaking his head, “Ben drove me nuts. He was unpredictable as a player, and I tried to make him more predictable.”

There was the rub. Lundy could celebrate and reward unpredictable when it blended and produced within his team structure, but that’s a dynamic that takes time to blossom. And that flower did not bloom overnight.

As a child, Hollingsworth had a soccer ball pretty much attached to him. Everyone in his Creekside neighborhood in Mt. Pleasant knew him – this undersized kid with the ball, the short sleeves of his soccer jersey hanging below his elbows, almost to his wrists. But size had nothing to do with determination. Not when it came to him. His initial goal, like many boys, was pretty simple: beat big brother. Beat him in anything, everything – basketball, tennis, life, you name it. Soccer, it occurred to him early on, might be the best bet to take him down, so he narrowed his focus there. Because he was so much smaller than Josh, his older brother – in fact, so much smaller than everyone else his age – Hollingsworth knew he had to work harder, but he didn’t mind it. He liked the challenge. He liked pushing himself to the brink of exhaustion. He found purpose pounding that ball against fences and walls; making it dance with him across the lawn; keeping it airborne with his head, knees and feet for seconds, then minutes at a time. Soccer engaged every part of him, mind and body, and he loved it.

By the time he was a teenager, all those touches in and around his neighborhood started paying off. At 15, he successfully tried out for the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., one of the world’s premier sports training centers. There, he could eat, sleep, play soccer. It also hardened him.

“It’s a little like Lord of the Flies,” Hollingsworth remembers. “At times, you’re just trying to survive and do everything to scrape by because everyone is super competitive. You all have
the same goal, and you want to beat them. But you eventually realize that you’re in it together. You learn that you have to push yourself as an individual, that repetition works, and through that focus, you have these little moments of brilliance. That really stuck with me.”

Perhaps most important, however, Hollingsworth finally hit his growth spurt at 17, just in time for college recruiters. One of those interested in his talent was Southern Methodist University’s coach, Schellas Hyndman (now the head coach for Major League Soccer’s FC Dallas club). Hyndman’s SMU Mustangs had been an NCAA championship contender the previous season. Lundy, who thought Hollingsworth would be an OK player on his squad, had also recruited him, liking mostly the fact that he was a local kid from Mt. Pleasant. But Hollingsworth, hungry to play for the best in the nation, chose SMU.

Dreams and reality have a funny way of colliding, and not in ways expected. Hollingsworth soon discovered that what he really wanted was to actually play. Winning meant little if you weren’t on the field contributing to it. He didn’t want to sit on the bench and watch others do what he knew he could do. By the end of his freshman year at SMU, he determined that he’d made the wrong choice and decided to transfer to the College.

But the transition wasn’t without some bumps. Almost comically, from the beginning, the main point of contention between Lundy and Hollingsworth was hair.

“I don’t mind long hair,” Lundy admits, “but I won’t let my players color their hair. I don’t want purple hair, green hair. On my team, I don’t want a guy whose hair is a mess. It doesn’t make a man. I have certain standards they have to live by.”

Hollingsworth laughs about it now: “Yeah, I came in with long hair. Lundy had his military style, and when you’re 19, you want to rebel against everything, especially something like that. Lundy didn’t want your hair to touch your ears or your collar, so I shaved the front and the sides. I looked ridiculous. But I thought, if you want me to do this, I’m going to do it my own way.”

Hair wasn’t the only point of contention. Hollingsworth’s style of play needed to change as well. At times, he wouldn’t make the simple pass to the open man, choosing to ignore what some might deem the “right” play because he imagined possibility where no one else saw it.

“Yeah, Ben could frustrate us,” laughs Troy Lesesne ’04, a co-captain with Hollingsworth and an All-American midfielder for the Cougars. “He was a free-spirited soccer player, to say the least. He was always looking to score, always looking for the next opportunity that might be greater. As a scorer, you need to be a little selfish.”

Selfish? Maybe a little. But more than anything, Hollingsworth was self-absorbed, inward. During play, he concentrated on his touches, perfecting his footwork, dribbling the ball up field. He didn’t hear anything around him. Just his breathing and the light, metronome pop of cleat against ball. He rarely noticed his flailing coaches on the sidelines screaming, imploring him to “get your head up! Get your head up!” That tunnel vision needed some light. It was common for him to dribble the ball over the end line, a cardinal sin in soccer. It wouldn’t happen just once. It would happen again and again.

“He couldn’t help it,” Lundy sighs. “When you train with the ball so much on your own, you don’t think to see other players. He would just get going and before he knew it, he was out of bounds. Inexcusable.”

And with that, Lundy would yell for him to get off the field. “The greatest coach is the bench,” Lundy says. “The best motivation for someone who wants to play, and Hollingsworth wanted to play – man, did he want to play – is to tell him he can’t. That would drive Ben crazy.”

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While Hollingsworth might be infuriating at times, his teammates loved his drive, his first-to-practice and last-to-leave mentality. He wasn’t some goal-glory prima donna. He was relentless. He was a workhorse. Really, you couldn’t fault the guy for making a bad play because he would work just as hard to rectify it, chasing the ball back down from his misplay. And his desire to play, to win, was infectious.

“He was a soccer junkie,” Lundy says. “He, Troy, Jake Heins ’04 and George Grygar ’04, they couldn’t get enough. They kept pushing each other to be better. I would kill them in practice. And then they would get their breath, get something to eat and then, on their own, come down to Silcox Gym and practice hours doing side volleys, turns, play one on one, two on two on the racquetball courts. Or, they would go into the dance studio and practice their soccer moves in front of the mirror.”

By Hollingsworth’s senior year, everything seemed to gel. His teammates had an idea of what he was going to do, and he had a better idea of what he wanted to do.

“We were on the same wavelength by then,” Lundy admits. “I stuck with him. You don’t try to take the unique out of a player, even if it’s an ugly unique, especially when it’s productive. Soccer is an interesting game. You have to try to take a player’s natural abilities and inclinations and blend them into a team and, in that process, try not to kill that individuality. You got to let it mature. Let it shine.”

Hollingsworth’s uniqueness certainly shone through. He led the Southern Conference that season in game-winning goals at six. And he saved his best for the Southern Conference Tournament, where he scored all the Cougars’ goals. None was more spectacular than his goal against Davidson in overtime during the conference championship game.

Jeremy Gold ’08 served a perfect arcing ball into the box, and a leaping Hollingsworth drilled a header into the back of the net. That sudden-death goal, which sent the Cougars back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly a decade, cemented his legend as a clutch, scoring machine.

For those fans of Cougars soccer, that overtime goal was a where-were-you moment, a split second forever emblazoned in CofC glory. And the celebration afterward was equally as memorable: a screaming Hollingsworth and Lesesne running shirtless around the field until Darren Toby ’08 tackles Hollingsworth behind the Davidson goal and the rest of the team, fans, coaches, leaping, yelling, maybe even crying a little, dog piling on Hollingsworth, only to lift him to their shoulders a few seconds later, chanting in one unforgettable, rhythmic voice: “We’re goin’ to the show. We’re goin’ to the show.”

Fashion Forward

“Yeah, Ben was definitely the show,” Lesesne smiles.

And this had nothing to do with his soccer prowess. There was an energy about him, a spirit to Hollingsworth that made him stand out in the crowd. Anyone who met him knew immediately that he was a different kind of guy. Worldly. Smart. Funny. Certainly extroverted, but also very private.

Let’s start with his style. Besides his Lundy-defiant hair choices, Hollingsworth was very conscious of his appearance. As Lesesne puts it, “Ben was trendy before it was trendy. He was always putting his own twist on things, maybe buying something and then making it his own by adding rips and tears, cutting out the collar. That was his style.”

You could call it hipster, bohemian, Euro-trash. Hollingsworth didn’t care. He simply knew what he liked. Maybe it was dark, skinny jeans with high tops or perhaps a shredded tank top or mesh shirt with boots.

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As roommate and teammate Jake Heins remembers, “When Ben was getting ready to go out, he would spend 30 minutes to make it look like it took him only five.”

For his friends, there was always a lot of laughter around Hollingsworth, many times at his expense. They would joke about his “European jeans”; then someone else would crack, “No, those are his girlfriend’s jeans.” To them, he was always trying to be ahead of the curve, always edgy, wearing clothes they had never seen men wear before and listening to bands they had never heard of, like Animal Collective, Sigur Rós, The Walkmen or TV on the Radio, before those groups made it big.

And although they poked fun at him all the time, which he didn’t mind, because he certainly gave it back, they knew he was both style and substance.

“To a lot of us, he just seemed more culturally evolved,” Heins explains. “Ben would go to Brazil and Sweden on school breaks to see and train with old friends from SMU. Through travel, he had this bigger sense of what was going on. He’s a different cat, so very different … in a good way.”

Whereas many on campus might pigeonhole Hollingsworth as just another passionate student-athlete, his close friends knew he harbored a secret mistress – art. When he was 14, a friend and neighbor – Carolina Davila ’05 – gave him his first sketchbook. He used it as a place to jot down random thoughts and ideas, but mostly doodles. At that time, he also discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat, a Haitian-American graffiti artist from New York City.

“I had no idea what art was then,” Hollingsworth recalls, “but I knew this was the coolest thing I had ever seen.”

Over the years, he kept doodling. By the time he reached college, in between the practices (both official and unofficial), games and his studies, he took time to exercise that creative muscle a little more.

“He could sketch anything,” Heins recalls.

And he would. Maybe it was a female body or a baboon or a giraffe or a horse. He expanded his work from the sketchbook to larger formats. Using oils, spray paint, chalk, even house paint, he would create pieces on plywood, because wood was a lot cheaper than canvas. He painted mountains alive in color or scenes of bright flowers, their green stems dripping into roots of whites and blacks.

But art was just a playful outlet, a welcome distraction away from the physical grind, of pushing himself to the limits. The soccer field was his true workspace, his true future. At least he thought it was.

Heading to the Top

Things were going well. Everything was going according to plan. After graduating with a communication degree in December 2004, Hollingsworth signed with the Charleston Battery. The momentum he had built his senior season carried over to the professional level, where he worked his way into the Battery’s starting lineup (first as a defender and then as a forward). His rookie season, Hollingsworth was named to the United Soccer Leagues First Division All-Second Team (the only player from the Battery to make it), he earned three fan favorite awards, he received the Newcomer of the Year Award and he was voted 2005 Charleston Battery MVP.

By the end of that fairly spectacular season, he was getting interest from a few Major League Soccer teams. Rather than sign a development contract (basically securing a spot on a bench), Hollingsworth returned to the Battery, where he knew he could play and continue to improve and show off his game.

It seemed like a smart move. That next season, he scored 13 goals in 28 games and was named to the USL’s First Division All-League First Team. International clubs in Sweden and Finland were now calling. Hollingsworth’s stock was high, and he knew it.

Going into his division’s playoffs, Hollingsworth was ready to continue his goal-scoring streak from the regular season. Although his right foot bothered him a little, as a professional, he knew you play through the pain. There had been nothing in the X-rays to make anyone on the staff worry. He could take it. No big deal.

Actually, it was a big deal. As Hollingsworth was chasing down an uncontested ball near the sideline, he heard something pop. It felt like he had been shot in his right foot. What he hoped was only a torn ligament was in reality a fracture. His season was over.

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“They put two screws in my foot,” Hollingsworth remembers, “and I did my rehab. Everything seemed fine. I was back on track.”

Four months later, after being cleared to play, he got the phone call. This was historic. This was a game-changer. Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s most successful soccer club, wanted to give him a 10-day tryout in February. If all went well, he might be the first American to play there. This was a Premier League team and a foot in the door for a possible six- or seven-figure contract.

I’m on my way, Hollingsworth believed.

He was on his way, just not the way he thought. On the field, he never felt quite right. His foot still bothered him. And no matter how much ice he put on it or the amount of painkillers he took at night, he knew something was wrong. So did the Maccabi Tel Aviv coaches, who took him aside and asked him to get a second opinion. They knew no player should be hobbling around like that in constant pain.

One of the screws, he discovered, was actually going into the fracture site. During the 18 months to correct that initial surgery, he underwent three more operations and a life on crutches.

“Before that last surgery, I thought I could come back. But the bone was dying,” Hollingsworth says. “Crazy, I was right there where I wanted to be. I could have retired playing soccer.”

The surgeons told him that he had two options, but these weren’t choices leading to either a lady or a tiger. For Hollingsworth, it was tiger or tiger – because either one meant that he would never play soccer again. They said, “Option 1: We can do an operation that will give you some mobility, but you will be in pain for the rest of your life. Option 2: We fuse your foot to your ankle, but you will have limited mobility and you’ll most likely walk with a limp. But, you can move on with your life.”

Move on? Easy for them to say. Their dreams, their careers had not just ended in a puff of smoke. Remarkably, however, before full-on depression could ensnare him and pull him down, Hollingsworth did just what the doctors ordered. He moved on.

“When I had first broken my foot,” Hollingsworth explains, “I visited a girlfriend who was studying abroad in Paris. We went to the Pompidou and the Louvre to look at art. And once you see this stuff, experience that culture, you can’t plead ignorance. You are compelled to do something, to add to the conversation.”

So, untethered from soccer, he decided to do some talking of his own.

Living Plan B

How do you start over? Really begin anew? If you’re Ben Hollingsworth, you drive to Washington, D.C., stay with college friends Adam Comar ’04 and James Ward ’05, sell your beat-up Mercedes for two grand and catch a bus to New York City, carrying only a bag of clothes, a Polaroid camera and a few favorite images. You miraculously find a sublet, rent-controlled apartment for $1,300 a month (a steal by New York standards) – a five-floor walkup on the Lower East Side with combo bathroom and kitchen. It’s tight, but it’s right, Hollingsworth thinks to himself, able to spread his arms and almost touch the facing walls in his living room.

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OK, now, how do you become an artist in New York City? That one is a little trickier. If you’re Ben Hollingsworth, you absorb the city like a sponge. You look up old friends trying to make it in art as well and pick their brains. You realize that you need to know a lot more about the arts, not just the manic scene in the city, but in all of history. You go to the nearby Chelsea branch of the New York Public Library, right on the cusp of Chinatown, and check out every book you can about art. You study Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Matthew Barney, Martin Kippenberger. And you watch every season of PBS’s Art21, listening to a wide range of artists discuss place, identity, spirituality and consumption in their work. You visit art galleries and museums, reminding yourself to close your mouth as you take in the pieces at MoMA and the Met. You realize that this struggle, this pursuit feels pretty familiar. It’s like IMG Academy all over again: competing with others, but really only with yourself. Except now, the stakes seem even greater, the pursuit more important than anything you’ve ever done before. But it’s invigorating – to eat, sleep, think Art (and Art, for you, is a capitalized word).

Now, four years into his art career, Hollingsworth is being considered by many critics and collectors in the art world as “one to watch.” His work, featured in a variety of art shows from New York to Miami, is generating a lot of buzz. And judging by the reception of his recent solo exhibition in Charleston, there are many more galleries and showings in his future.

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As Mark Sloan, director and senior curator at the College’s Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, notes, “Ben has an unusual approach to artmaking. He’s able to distill complex ideas into a cohesive statement using uncommon materials. I’ve always been impressed by his near obsessive interest in laying process bare. He rarely takes the simple route, and often sets up a situation in which he’s required to spend countless hours sculpting or mark making to complete a piece. That way, the process of the making of the work is evident in the final work, almost like a palimpsest.”

Certainly Hollingsworth has never been afraid of pushing himself to the limits of what’s possible. He took that approach with soccer, and, naturally, he takes that same approach with art. Each morning, he wakes up at 7 a.m., chews three or four pieces of Jolt gum (his caffeine shots) and goes on a two-hour run around Manhattan (yes, with one foot fused to his ankle), bikes over to his studio in Brooklyn and then works until late into the night. He eats most of his meals standing up – usually easy things, like bananas, apples, eggs, tuna paste and sweet potatoes.

“Everything needs to be on the go. I don’t want to waste time cooking,” Hollingsworth says. “I want to be as efficient as possible so that I don’t waste any time away from working.”

For him, Tuesdays look like Saturdays, and Saturdays look like Tuesdays. The day of the week doesn’t matter, only the work matters. Because the work is what drives the conversation in art. And as a relative newcomer on the art scene, Hollingsworth doesn’t want to sit on the sidelines. He’s always come to play, to be in the middle of things.

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“I’m only starting out, but I want to make art that doesn’t look like art. I want to make something that is completely mine,” Hollingsworth says. “I want to create something you can’t put your finger on, something that defies terms, definitions, labels. I want to push art in a new direction.”

Ambitious? Yes. Naïve? Perhaps. But Hollingsworth understands that art is a lifelong pursuit. It’s a grind. It’s repetitive, like running extra sprints around a soccer field or kicking balls on a racquetball court after practice. But he loves it, every part of it.

“No one is going to make this happen for me, but me,” he says. “If I don’t show up every day in the studio, it doesn’t get done. Art doesn’t make itself.”

He’s right: Art doesn’t make itself. Only an artist, a true artist, can create something memorable from nothing. That is what Ben Hollingsworth has always done, and that’s what he will always do.