For many people, the phrase “a long time ago” conjures up memories of a dark room and the low voice of a parent spinning stories for a captive audience. Whether it’s a scary story or a fairy tale, the art of storytelling is something we can all appreciate. This year’s Piccolo exhibit at the City Gallery features nine of Charleston’s emerging and contemporary artists who’ve explored this idea through painting, sculpture, paper-cutting, collage, and pen-and-ink drawing.

Seth Corts and Lisa Abernathy’s shared love of storytelling inspired the exhibit. Corts, who grew up in North Carolina, was weaned on stories about bootleggers, ghosts, and haunted woods, while Lisa traveled the globe with her Air Force father. “So for us, storytelling through art is a way of life,” Corts says. The married couple looked for nontraditional artists who could tell a story with one panel or piece of art. Hirona Matsuda came on board to curate the show. “We tried hard to make sure that it would be stuff people don’t get to see very often: illustration, taxidermy, paper cuts, and Michelle [Jewell]’s brilliant sculptures. These are all dying art forms,” Corts says. “So many people think of art as strictly painting, and Lisa and I wanted to challenge that a bit.”

Like modern fairy tales for adults, Abernathy’s paper cuts are imaginative and darkly delicate. In “Vasilla,” a young woman wanders in the woods like Snow White, clutching a bird in one hand and a stick with a skull on it in the other. “I hope my art pulls on something deep within the viewer, that it tugs on the hook of connection and beauty and wildness that resides within,” Abernathy says. “I really wanted to work on pieces that were delicate and feminine while being fierce at the same time. I think those things can naturally go hand in hand — it doesn’t have to be either/or.” Corts says he’s inspired by a “rabid fascination with American history,” and his pieces tell local tales of historic figures like Lt. George Dixon, who piloted the doomed Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley and survived a gunshot during the attack at the battle of Shiloh. Using simple tools — a piece of paper, a No. 2 pencil, and some ink pens — Corts gives life to these local folktales.

In preparation for the show, Lisa Shimko asked many of her friends to tell her the first folktale, fairy tale, and/or myth that came to mind. “I wasn’t looking to illustrate a story, but wanted to collage different aspects from a variety of stories together so the viewer could create a new story,” she says. Shimko is well known for her personified animals set in surrealistic landscapes. In “What’s Waiting for You in the Forest,” a small bear peeks from behind a tree under a full moon. The effect is both clever and charming. And because she has created bigger pieces for the City Gallery’s large walls, she’s given viewers a new way of disappearing into her fanciful worlds.

Many of the artists have combined traditional techniques with contemporary subjects. Liz Vaughan uses a letterpress and cyanotypes, “in resistance to the crazy consumer-driven digital revolution, and partly because it just feels more meaningful,” she says. “I want to have my hand in my art. I want to get dirty and stained and have to wear an apron. I want that physical experience with my work.” Her images use collaged photographic material, paper, drafting vellum, pieces of maps, and text.

Michelle Jewell hand-cuts her animal/human hybrid creations. Loosely inspired by folklore and classic children’s stories, her “toys” are woodland, beastly creatures on the verge of transitioning into an urban environment. “I’ve discovered that my creations tell a different story to each person who views them,” she says. “People often tell me my creations remind them of some part of their childhood. It’s fun to watch them going back to that place in their head.”

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