Two sides of the coin: Works of whimsy, melancholy on display at River Gallery in Chattanooga

Two sides of the coin: Works of whimsy, melancholy on display at River Gallery in Chattanooga

October 20th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Works such as the oil painting "Poetry" by Cynthia Tollefsrud will be at the River Gallery from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Works such as the oil painting "Poetry" by...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

"She's a Fighter," by Alpharetta, Ga.-based mixed media sculptor Kirsten Stingle.

"She's a Fighter," by Alpharetta, Ga.-based mixed media...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.


* What: "Narrative Gestures," featuring sculptures by Kirsten Stingle and paintings by Cynthia Tollefsrud.

* When: Through Oct. 31.

* Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

* Where: River Gallery, 400 E. Second St.

* Admission: Free.

* Phone: 265-5033, ext. 5.

* Website:

The Light side and Dark side of human existence is a concept with which fans of "Star Wars" are intimately familiar, and River Gallery is exhibiting two artists whose work explores both sides of that spectrum.

Knoxville, Tenn.-based oil painter Cynthia Tollefsrud and Alpharetta, Ga.-based mixed media sculptor Kirsten Stingle are featured in the exhibition, "Narrative Gestures."

Stingle's pieces combine pale clay figures with found objects, creating stark, often-monochrome sculptures that are discomfiting and - at first - grimly inscrutable. This body of work is the result of an intentional exploration of the uncomfortable thoughts and aspects of existence that most people would rather sweep under the rug, she says.

"Sometimes before, when I've done festivals, people don't like work that makes them a little uncomfortable. They want to dwell on that polite veneer of the happier places," Stingle says. "It's not that my work doesn't have that light side of wonder and joy, but I feel like, with this body of work, I wanted to show the darker layers because they're what make us human.

"We don't like to talk about it, but we all have those darker layers, but it's how we deal with those layers that defines us."

Stingle began sculpting a decade ago, but before that, she was an actress-turned-public-policy analyst living in New York City. In the aftermath of 9/11, she turned to manipulating clay rather than the often-fruitless work of manipulating politicians.

Although it shares little obvious connection to her artwork, Stingle says storytelling has always been a driving force in her life, whether by treading the boards or collecting the stories of those affected by welfare. In the case of her River Gallery works, the story is front and center, but it takes time to be fully appreciated.

"I don't want to dictate the story to you," she explains. "I want the viewer to bring their own interpretation to the piece, their own perspective and, as they spend more time with it, a dialogue can develop, and that's where the storytelling is."

In stark contrast to Stingle, Tollefsrud's paintings are rife with bright colors, fanciful subjects and playfully posed women modeled on the artist.

At the onset of her career, after leaving the world of commercial art in the 1990s, Tollefsrud submitted two paintings for consideration to a juried show at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. One was "very dark, very angry," the other "very happy and peaceful." The judges' decision to show the uplifting work, she says, set her on a lifelong path of depicting artistic whimsy.

"Ever since then, everything has been very happy and peaceful and fun," she says. "It's funny how that directed my paintings.

"It hangs with me, that happy feeling I get when I do these paintings. That's just the way I am. I'd rather be happy than grumpy, anyway."

Despite the diametrically opposed goals of the artists on display, "Narrative Gestures" was not intended to be an exhibition of polar opposites, says gallery spokeswoman Angie Supan.

"I don't think we intentionally chose to exhibit them based on that, but we love both of their works, and we think they're really great married together," says Supan. "I don't think that was planned, but it's interesting."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.