Embroidery has a long history of being passed down by women in the home, but that's not how Sophia Narrett came to the craft. Working outside of that domestic context, the artist stitches narratives of role-play, fantasy, and eroticism into vivid, often twisted, depictions of modern life and dreamscapes. At first glance, you can see how the work subverts a traditional and traditionally feminine medium. But Narrett's craft-focused practice also engages in a more subtle exploration of emotional identities.
Originally trained as a painter, the artist says her first encounters with a needle and thread were serendipitous. "I felt a much more immediate connection to embroidery," she tells me, adjusting a fiber charm on one of her works. Earlier this fall, the piece appeared in a solo show at Freight + Volume gallery on the Lower East Side as part of the series "Early in the Game." Together, the hanging woven tableaux formed a fragmented, thought-provoking narrative. They depicted sexual fantasies unfolding in home basements, clusters of suited bachelors framed by Tinder buttons, and a group of nude idling women attached to IV drips, with life-size renderings of cords and needles trailing off the piece.
"It's like painting or drawing with the thread," the artist explains of her process, which requires large investments of both time and manual labor. Narrett works from Photoshop collages of pictures culled from Tumblr and TV shows (American Psycho and The Bachelor among them), stitching her own original fictions line by line until the images finally appear. And despite its heavily crafted nature — and contrary to the long-held notion that embroidery is not art — Narrett's work does sit firmly in the art world.
Leading on from her New York solo exhibition, Narrett currently has a piece in 315 Gallery's group show "it started with a rose," in Brooklyn. Her work has also garnered a following with a more craft-focused audience. She appeared in BRIC Arts' "Material Cultures," a show exploring the way textiles relate to human life, and, last month, began a four-month-long residency at the Museum of Arts and Design. Narrett is at the museum's open studios every Wednesday where visitors are invited to ask about her process. We paid the artist a visit to discuss the emotional power of textiles, dollhouses, and the obscure border between art and craft.
Your work lives in an interesting place between the craft and art worlds. Where do you see yourself fitting in?
It's not something I think about when I'm making my work because I definitely identify as an artist, especially coming from a painting background. But within that world I've always thought of myself as a craftsperson because I'm dedicated to making a beautiful, finished object that will do justice to the feelings and the emotion in the original narrative. That's a very craft-based mindset, so it's hard to separate them for me.
That's interesting because embroidery is something that isn't always considered art.
I think a lot about the history of embroidery. It wasn't why I came to the medium to engage with that or to make a feminist statement about bringing the material to the art world. It was really much more the formal reasons — why it worked for me rather than painting. It's interesting because my work has never been denied as art because it's fiber, but embroidery does have that history.
There's a voyeuristic quality to your work; the plants and life-size objects surrounding the images often seem to make a window frame. What's the thinking behind that?
Suspension of disbelief is something that's really important for me. [The poet and critic] Susan Stewart has some amazing ideas in her book On Longing. It's about the way the dollhouse frames a miniature world and how narrative can unfold spatially through tableaux. The fantasy needs that border for you to be able to suspend disbelief. I'll also do little life-size props on the border. In the piece Waiting it's weed earrings, raspberries, smiley faces, heart jewels — I think of them as clues to the narrative.
Can you tell me about your residency at MAD?
It's an open studio environment so museum visitors can come in and talk to the artists. I had a really interesting conversation with a woman who was disturbed by my piece When Your Heart is Open. In my mind, the piece is part of a narrative about escapism, eroticism, and role-play. While there is a disturbing layer to it, I think of it as make-believe.
I was interested to talk to her because she had a very thoughtful response regarding real violence against women. Sex fantasies involving power dynamics can't really be separated from the terrible things that happen in the real world. At the same time, contextualizing power dynamics in a safe space of consensual play can be fun, and potentially even catalyze self-actualization or transformation. This doesn't negate the fact that violence against women is such a devastating reality. It was interesting to talk to someone who saw this in my work and didn't shy away from it.
Can you tell me about being part of the BRIC Arts show "Material Cultures"? What was it like to be shown alongside so many textile artists?
That was an amazing show to be a part of. We had a wonderful discussion at the artist panel about the visceral experience of looking at textiles. Something I think about a lot is how the residue of being touched by a human hand for so many hours can stay in fabric. When you look at something that's been heavily crafted, you have this connection to it — the experience of even looking at textiles is tactile.
I think of textiles as more accessible than an oil painting. People don't touch paintings every day in the way that they touch fabric every day. And in terms of what my narratives are — as intimate and as personal as they are — I like having a close connection to making the work. I hope to give some of that to the viewer.
Text Molly Elizalde
Images courtesy Sophia Narrett