In the Studio: Sophia Narrett
Tequila & Denim recently caught up with up and coming artist Sophia Narrett in her Bushwick studio to talk embroidery, eroticism, and the power of melodrama. Read on below!
T&D: So I know your last show had a cast of characters and a plot running through the pieces – do you have a similar through-line in this work?
Sophia Narrett: That project had a linear narrative, where the 4 pieces told a story, in order, with recurring characters, this one is more branching and abstract in the narrative. It’s separated into three chapters with three different emotional tones, a small card introduces each one. There are some characters I think of as recurring but it’s not specific – more that I wanted to tell this evolution of feelings rather than follow a specific character through events.
T&D: More of a thematic evolution…
SN: Yeah, exactly. I imagine a collective consciousness between the characters. They are somewhat interchangeable. Something happening to one person could have just as easily happened to another.
T&D: It seems like it all takes place in the same universe.
SN: Yes! So when I first started the narrative I was thinking of the setting as a suburban court of houses. Within this there ended up being a backyard scene, bedroom and bathroom scenes, and group of scenes that took place in the basements of the houses. There’s one that’s supposed to be at the local bank and one was more of a bar. This is the first time I’ve done so many interiors.
T&D: Well one thing I like about them is the way you translate the depth of color from your outdoor elements into the interiors. I think it’s super impressionistic – I love the texture and depth and the way you translate the interiors into something more akin to nature.
T&D: So are these your inspirations on the wall?
SN: Yeah, a lot of these I’ve had for a long time actually. The images of paintings are Victorian fairy paintings, which I’m very into. I admire the spatially unfolding narrative and this idea of a landscape being a stage. The pages are from O Pioneers! – It’s a book by Willa Cather that tells the story of an affair. In the end, the woman’s husband shoots the couple having the affair. The affair itself was innocent though. The first page, here, is a really beautiful moment, shortly after the couple kissed for the first time. The man goes to find the woman, and they’re so in love and it’s just this amazing description of him finding her in the orchard, and the way his love has transformed her. Then, this page next to it, is from 6 pages later, when they’re in the same orchard, and her husband has shot both of them. She’s crawled over to her lover so they can die together. It’s kind of overwrought in a way, very sensationalized, or at least it sounds that way, me trying to put it into words now. But it’s totally genuine, and I cried when I read it.
SN: Yeah exactly! But that word can have negative connotations, and I don’t think of it as a negative thing. Even though I recognized the melodrama of the scene I experienced it seriously.
T&D: Well looking at your work – the ornate detail you use fits in with the drama of it all. In grad school I studied a lot of the Romantic thought and the Romantic attitude is so much about thriving on passion and doing everything to the extreme. The high highs and the low lows – it’s all hugely emotional.
I feel like there are definite similarities there and what you’re describing – the over the top romance and intense emotional response. You can definitely see those elements at play in your work and it’s only intensified by your insane detail you put into your work.
SN: Thank you, that’s something I think about also in terms of the time investment in building them up. It has a big connection to how feelings, at times, can get so intense that they almost topple over and become ridiculous, but at the same time, I mean them really sincerely. It’s the same thing with the thread – where it can get so ornate and I’ll spend months doing one of these, but for me it’s a way to do justice to the feelings.
T&D: I think that’s really interesting.
SN: I feel like I’m driven first and foremost by the images and the narrative, but the physical process is also something I’m really committed to. When I was a painter I struggled; I just cared more about the narratives than making the paintings, so embroidery has been really fun for me. I get so invested in the physical material, and the fact that it pushes back a little. It changes and evolves the image and like you said, it hopefully is in dialogue with how intense the emotions are.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about humor in my work – how scenes like the golf game and the pool table mix silliness with eroticism…and with dread and maybe fear. I know they’re funny, and I mean them to be funny in a dry way, but I also am returning to this impulsive, completely sincere depiction of beauty and love and death and sadness. That’s the spirit I’m coming from, it’s not an effort to make a joke. I think of those images primarily as efforts for people to connect to each other through unconventional sex. Maybe in a way the humor relates to the melodrama, something about exaggeration as a vehicle for truth.
T&D: I feel like being unafraid to be sincere about these crazy erotic scenes is a really bold stance to take. It’s taking a taboo thing in our culture and saying that it’s exactly what you think it is, it’s sincerely a weird sex golf game with naked people, accept it that way.
SN: I found a lot of the source material for the images on the internet. I mean, the situations are invented and built through collage, but a lot of the visual ideas came directly from the internet. At first I make work on a gut level, where I’m captivated by an idea or story. I write the narrative and then I find reference images to illustrate it online, or from screenshots or sometimes photos I’ve staged. In this process of gathering the images, the original story evolves, often to address things outside of myself or the original inspiration. This narrative began as a way to talk about emotional and sexual games.
T&D: Let’s play a game.
SN: Haha, exactly! I was specifically thinking of this idea of role-play, and how you can set that up as a parameter for a certain interaction that you’re having in a relationship, and what kind of space this makes for people to make believe within. I think it potentially speaks to our ability to shape our own realities, like using imagination, or scripting, to control your experience of the world.
T&D: Or what does it mean to delineate between “real life” and the role you’re playing…but isn’t the role-play also part of your life?
SN: Right – it raises so many questions about the boundaries of fantasy. I was thinking of all these things and started building this narrative around a group of people that would be exploring this. It’s definitely ridiculous, but I guess I feel like my work, even when it hasn’t been so sexually explicit, is often about some sort of emotional experience that I take really seriously, but at the same time there’s this level of fervor that does bring in absurdity.
My last narrative – where these two women met, fell in love, and then one of them left and the other killed herself – was a deeply real thing for me, the melodrama was part of the message.
T&D: Totally over the top.
I read something once about melodrama and how it can be this really effective tool to communicate emotions, and that really resonated with me. That last project was about heartbreak. Everyone’s heartbreak is so intense and earth shattering to them, but even if it’s an experience you’ve also had, it can be hard to relate to someone else’s. I feel like sometimes it’s really sad how hard it is for people to empathize or connect with each other. I like this idea of melodrama being a way to communicate how intense people’s feelings actually feel to the individual. Like with O Pioneers! – It’s about how being in love feels but it’s hard to put into words without it sounding cheesy.
T&D: Yeah! I think what you’re saying is by intentionally making something over the top you’re allowing emotion to be expressed how you want it to be. It shuttles past cheesy and into the next level of expression.
T&D: I think so! Say you’re struggling to talk about something highly emotional, but if you can skip past “keeping it appropriate” and into “total hyperbolic insanity”, the feeling might be easier to discuss if you magnify the intensity to the level of “stabbed in the heart and bleeding in an orchard” as opposed to “oh I’m really sad”. I think it comes back around to the way you communicate, but also if you think about soap operas or like Scandal – everything is the biggest thing.
SN: Totally. It’s like hyperbolizing to prove a point. But almost as if the hyperbole itself had a truth to it, because the original emotion that you were trying to prove or convey was so monumental. It can be a simultaneously unapologetic yet vulnerable language, and that appeals to me. And I’m super into reality TV and that kind of storytelling. This narrative doesn’t have specific references to reality tv like my last one did but I’m interested in the way reality dating shows frame love.
T&D: Like how girls are saying on the second date on The Bachelor “I’m really falling for him” but it’s like yeah you just rode a helicopter over a mountain of course you are.
SN: It’s so fake but it also speaks to how real the desire is to find that sort of thing.
T&D: It’s fake but its real – I think the circumstances are fake but the emotions are real because it’s all they have to focus on. All they can think about are their emotions and the guy they’re pining for, that’s literally it – all their energy is funneled into dating.
SN: Right, and I feel like the fact that it’s so widely consumed speaks to how badly people want that love story, and want to connect on a deeper level. Just to be able to connect to another human. That’s really all we desire, and the main thing people want to watch is that happening, even it’s a totally artificial version.
T&D: I want to ask about your process a little bit – I’m looking at your hoops. So I just want you to walk me through your physical process of making these pieces.
SN: I make photoshop collages for reference and then I’ll draw the image on the fabric. It’s a pretty simple outline drawing and then I’ll just sew directly while looking at the image and then try to translate it that way. Some of them, like the large ones, I make in multiple hoops. After they reach a certain point I’ll cut it out and take it off the hoop and finish it on the wall – a lot of the edge stuff comes in then.
T&D: So I know that you were a painter previously, but before you switched to embroidery did you sew growing up? Or how did you find your way into this?
SN: It was actually totally random. The first time I ever did embroidery I was making this installation, I was trying different things even though I was primarily a painter. I made these little four leaf clovers out of felt for the installation and then I got some embroidery thread to sew details onto the clovers. So after that I had some of the thread lying around the studio for awhile and I was trying different things – I was also using it for little sculptures and plaques. Looking back at the stuff I was making it seems like I was sort of searching for something, although I didn’t really know it at the time. One day I just thought I would try doing kind of a simple stitched outline. I’m mostly interested in images and so I just tried it and it was really fun and it just sort of went from there. It immediately solved a lot of the issues I was having in painting.
T&D: This is such a fun realization to have!
SN: It was! I was just addicted to doing it. I did this simple thread drawing and then another and another and I was just so excited to discover how to construct them and to experiment with it. The main factor was time because it really forced me to slow down and deal with the images in a way that I hadn’t really had the patience for while painting. The set color palette was really good for me – they make like 500 colors of thread but there’s definitely a set, it’s not color mixing. It became more about the juxtaposition of several colors or the layering. It just really worked well with the way my brain processes images.
T&D: Switching mediums gave you limitations that allowed you to process your own work.
SN: Yeah, I feel like I have a very craft based mindset so it really helps – the structure gave me a lot of freedom in that I feel like I can let the process take over. In some ways they’re very planned out but in other ways I can’t even picture what certain things are going to look like in the thread. I’ll be sewing on a part of the image for 5 days and then it’ll finally start to come out.
T&D: What’s the labor time? How long does it take you?
SN: Stuck was around 4 months. Relief and Delight was probably about 5 weeks. I usually sew at least 8 hours a day. I’m very neurotic and something about the sewing is just so satisfying to me. Just seeing this incremental progress – I start to go nuts if I haven’t been able to work for a while.
T&D: How did you decide on a scale?
SN: Well I think of it as “dollhouse scale,” the main foreground figures are at one foot = one inch scale. It’s sort of the scale that’s always come naturally. I grew up playing with dollhouses and lots of dolls in general. I would build all these elaborate towns and make clothes and food for them. I feel like that sort of projection of different emotions and stories on to little figures is still the thing that drives my work. I’m devoted to trying to figure out the larger social implications of these images or what I kind of story I’m trying to tell to other people, but that’s the secondary level for me. The first level is this genuine way to process things or work out my own experiences.
T&D: I really like how narrative your work is. I feel like as someone who looks at a lot of art, I may see cohesion in a show but I rarely see singular devotion to a narrative. I really like how you’re exploring that in a visual medium that isn’t film. It can be whatever you want it to be and you don’t have a limit of reality. You can make it look how you want and manipulate the scene that’s happening in your head EXACTLY you want it to be. I think that’s a really cool thing you’re able to do within this medium that a lot of people in other traditional visual mediums can’t necessarily explore – unless you’re Jeff Wall and you pay someone to live in an apartment for a year so you can photograph it as “lived in”. Most artists don’t have that luxury. I like the way you can use your imagination and run with it. You can stay within the parameters of the real world but you’re not LIMITED by it.
SN: I know what you mean. I really love that about making images.
T&D: I really like your tissue box (Crying) – I love how it’s true to size.
SN: That’s the other thing – I have these two scales going on where the people are the dollhouse scale and then there are props that are life sized. So the tissue box is life sized, Self Care has life sized bandaids, and teabags, and also tinder buttons, Waiting has jewelry and berries, and most of the pieces have some kind of life sized floral element.
T&D: I just love how it’s so impressionistic (or post-impressionistic) in the way you depict color fields. This tissue box is not just some solid flat dimensional thing – it could be – but you’ve gone above and beyond. You’re adding this next degree of texture, even though you’re making this object “real” – but you’re putting your painting instincts back into your work. I think the thread is so strong because the colors can’t just blend together like they can in painting.
SN: Yeah. I love flowers. I just think they’re so magical, truly. Like you know roses are this cliché symbol but when you have this fresh, live blooming rose in front of you there’s nothing cliché about it. They’re very erotic. There are sexual interactions in my images, but to me the eroticism goes beyond the sexual imagery, in the expansive way that Audre Lorde defined the Erotic. Hopefully this comes through in the other situations portrayed in my images, and in the way they’ve been constructed in embroidery. The sewing process is incredibly tactile, and I think when something has been touched a lot, a residue remains in the object that people can sense.