How do you tell a story without words? The City Gallery’s latest, A Long Time Ago, attempts to answer that question and more. Curated by local artist Hirona Matsuda, the exhibit transports viewers to another world of mixed media, sculpture, painting, and collage, where Baird Hoffmire’s dayglo vignettes depict the emotional riches of our unconscious mind and Becca Barnet’s beautifully butterflies are frozen in mid-air.

Trevor Webster’s handcrafted books are an obvious nod to the art of storytelling. “The Accordion Collection” is cleverly crafted and draws you in for a closer look, but unlike the books, his larger mixed media pieces seem to be from another artist. In one, a series of numbers is overlaid with acrylic splotches of paint that resemble an x-ray. In another painting, row after row of mostly undecipherable text is layered with red and blue paint in an abstract style.

Meanwhile, Seth Corts’ heavily detailed black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings are rich with fairy tales and folklore. One, “You Are Not Alone,” shows a woman caressing a wolf in the midst of a thick forest, and it’s an intimate scene that highlights Corts’ technical ability. Unfortunately, his series of small drawings are hung in a straight line across a broad wall on the first floor of the gallery. Contained in neat black frames, the works are dwarfed by the expanse of the wall.

Baird Hoffmire’s series of paintings are thought provoking and rich with emotional honesty, focusing on dark and sometimes disturbing modern fairy tales. In bold, over-saturated colors, they command the space, engaging the viewer.

Similarly powerful are Lisa Abernathy’s paper cuts. She has taken her images to a new level for the show, going bigger and framing her human and animal characters inside a mirror in one, and a large windowpane in another. The size and bold black and white of her images are strong enough to command the gallery space.

Colorful, soulful-eyed animals peer out of the canvas in Lisa Shimko’s paintings. A polar bear wears a hat and carries a pack of arrows on his back as he sits astride a horse. Mountains are visible in the distance; the pair is clearly in the midst of an important journey. It’s hard to imagine a viewer who wouldn’t find joy in her playful scenes. The playfulness continues, as the works, painted on both sides, are hung in mid-air the middle of a hallway, creating an enchanted forest vibe.

Xin Lu’s mixed-media narrative monoprints are delicate and filled with longing. “Charting the Moon,” offers a variety of textural elements and contrasting colors, but while her story may not be self-explanatory, we get the sense that one is tucked away inside. The series of small, square images seem too delicate for the venue.
Liz Vaughn’s series of mixed-media pieces are similarly delicate, and against a white backdrop, they disappear into the white walls. Delicate branches of feathers and puffy cotton ball clouds are so understated that if you blink, you’ll miss them.

The art of storytelling is less evident in Michelle Jewell’s whimsical and charming stuffed animal sculptures. They certainly force the viewer to ask what is art? Hand-sewn barnyard animals — a sheep, a goat and a fox — are contained in display boxes on the wall like toys on a shelf, while “Barnum,” a large-scale octopus is an impressive showstopper.

Becca Barnet’s “Apiology,” which features a collection of bees perched atop tiny branches inside a glass dome, is visually stunning. The detail and precision of her worlds within worlds is captivating. Viewers stop to lean in close and ask, “Are these real?” The answer is yes. Barnet is an exhibit technician for the recently opened the new Madagascar exhibit at the S.C. Aquarium, and she previously studied taxidermy during an internship at Rhode Island School of Design.

Unfortunately, the storytelling theme that runs through A Long Time Ago fails to connect all the dots. The high ceilings and expansive walls of the City Gallery are a great venue for big and bold pieces of art, and many of these talented local artists would have been better suited in a smaller, more intimate space.