Sophia Narrett: ‘I see the sewing process as akin to drawing’
The artist talks about the process of making her embroideries, why she uses pop culture for source material and why narrative is so important to her
by ALLIE BISWAS
Sophia Narrett makes intricate embroideries that merge tales of fantasy and reality. Formed by rainbow colours and elaborate stitchwork, the artist’s detailed narratives explore elements of contemporary life, such as celebrity and social media, as well as our complicated responses to pop culture.
Narrett received her BA in visual art from Brown University in 2010 and her Master of Fine Arts in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2014. After graduating last year, she completed a residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.
The artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, entitled This Meant Nothing, is at Arts + Leisure, until 28 June. Narrett’s work will be included in a group show, Pussy Don’t Fail Me Now, along with Doreen Garner and Kenya (Robinson), at Cindy Rucker Gallery, New York, which opens on 9 July.
Allie Biswas: You trained as a painter. How did your interest in using sewing as a medium develop?
Sophia Narrett: During my undergraduate studies, I was making a lot of paintings, which were all very driven by narrative and image. Then, towards the end, I started experimenting a little bit with sculptures, and I happened to have some embroidery thread, which I decided to use within these works. So it was totally happenstance. I really liked the colour and texture of the material. One day I tried to make a very simple outline drawing using this thread, and it went from there. I just got addicted to it.
AB: What were your paintings like? Do your thread works bear any resemblance to them?
SN: The paintings were very different, not really comparable at all. Although they included figures, which my embroidered works do, the ones in the paintings were life size. They were huge. I would say that they were pretty terrible paintings. I wasn’t invested in the material, I just couldn’t connect to oil paint in the way that I think you need to. I was excited by the idea of painting, but when I tried to make something, it just wasn’t working. When I started making things using thread, I found that the material was really shaping the idea.
AB: Where do your sewing skills come from?
SN: I sewed when I was growing up, but it was simple stuff, like sewing a straight line using a sewing machine. It was very basic. When I started making these works, there was a lot of trial and error. It was definitely experimental. I’ve learned certain stitches and sometimes incorporated them into the work, but really I see the process as more akin to drawing. It’s a freehand process for me.
AB: Does that mean that you don’t plan the outline of the image before you begin to sew? How do you start a work?
SN: I start with the story in my mind – the narrative on which the work is based. The works in my current exhibition, for the first time, are connected by narrative. So the first work is the beginning of the story, and the fourth work is the conclusion. After I know what the narrative will be, I make a collage on Photoshop. A lot of the figures are from Tumblr, and many of the images I find online will actually help to evolve the narrative.
AB: What about the practical process?
SN: I make them all in sections with embroidery hoops, which stretch the fabric so it stays tight as you’re working on it. I’ll work across a few different pieces of material, which will then be sewn together at the end. Sometimes I’ll work on a piece as it’s hanging on the wall – I’ll stand and sew. It’s fun to make them in sections because I hop around a lot. It’s not a left to right process. It’s more like, today I feel like sewing this big rose, or today I feel like working on the detail of this figure’s face.
AB: How long will it take you to make one small figure?
SN: Probably two full days. But I won’t necessarily spend two days working solely on a figure. I’ll be jumping around.
AB: How do you plan the colour gradation so that the stitches actually form an image at the end?
SN: I just do that in my head. I also know all of the colours by memory now. So I might be looking for a yellow, for example, and I know that there is a yellow that is slightly more green, which is just right for what I need.
AB: The works in your exhibition at Arts + Leisure are based on the TV programme The Bachelor [a US reality TV dating gameshow].
SN: Yes, the series starts with an episode of The Bachelor. In the first work, you will see I have included these two women, who are my main characters. I’ve presented them as contestants on the show. I based these two women on images of Lauren Morelli, who is a writer for the TV show Orange is the New Black, and Samira Wiley, who is an actress in the show.
AB: Why did you want to use these two personalities?
SN: When I started thinking about the narrative for these current works, it was a combination of personal experiences as well as fictional scenarios, which I put together. The week that I started putting together the collage on Photoshop, a story was posted about Wiley and Morelli being romantically involved. They were photographed together at the Emmy party. In Orange is the New Black, the main female character, who is engaged to be married to this guy, is reunited with her previous girlfriend when they both get sent to prison. In real life, Morelli realised she was gay when writing the show, divorced her husband, and then got together with Wiley. I wanted to base my narrative on them because their involvement with each other was also this blending of fiction and reality, like the story I had prepared.
AB: What interests you about using television and images from social media sites as source materials?
SN: Using pop culture is something that is so important to me because of the way we are inundated with it. It feels like we don’t have any choice. A lot of it is so problematic and wrong. Everything about The Bachelor is terrible. The women are desperate to get married to this man, not because they necessarily even like him, but because they think they will experience self-actualisation just by marrying someone. Subtexts of things that people say on the show are almost always sexist, or racist, or homophobic. But at the same time, I’ll watch the show, and it’s this melodrama that I want to believe in. You know, the idea of falling in love, for example. I feel as though I might be examining how I want things that I actually don’t really want to desire.
AB: Are the works, then, a way of revealing truths about yourself that you might not want to admit to?
SN: Exactly. It’s my way of telling an honest fantasy. In a way, it’s a critique of social conditioning, but also wanting to be like that, or to have that thing. The way I like to think about it is by comparing these ideas to a book called The Future Eve [by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, published in 1886]. In it, they make a female Frankenstein, though she is never supposed to be alive like Frankenstein was. She doesn’t have any agency. She is just meant to be a very believable robot. So all of her speech is pre-programmed. But when she is animated, she claims that she is made up all of these dark forces that compelled the scientist to make her. You, of course, don’t know if she was programmed to say even that, but what I’m very interested in is that position of I didn’t ask to want these things, but now I want them. So how can I focus on something real, like pain or love, and use TV or fashion Tumblrs that I have this complicated love-hate relationship with. It’s using that type of visual language to discuss something deeper.
AB: What if the viewer doesn’t follow the narrative, either in each individual work or as it is played out within the sequence? If they hadn’t been told that the works were informed by certain television programmes, they might not necessarily realise that.
SN: If they are looking at the works and getting a sense of a story, then that is great. I feel like I want to work hard to depict a narrative that has a specificity. There is absolutely nothing arbitrary about it. I think if I can do that, then a viewer will be able to have a narrative experience, regardless of whether it absolutely mirrors what I am depicting. They don’t have to decode all of the particular details. Someone might not recognise that one of the figures I have included in the series is the rapper Kendrick Lamar, and that he’s wearing a Christopher Kane sweat suit, and they might not recognise that the two main characters are based on Wiley and Morelli. But I think that the narrative infrastructure is there to make the connections between each work in the sequence.
AB: When embroidery became your primary medium, were you conscious that you were embracing a medium that is relatively uncommon?
SN: I love that I haven’t really experienced any pushback to the fact that I’m using what is essentially a craft-based material and technique. For the most part, people are interested in accepting these works as paintings, and talking about their materiality and the ideas explored within them. Twenty or 30 years ago the conversation might have just been based around the notion of art versus craft. I am very interested in the process, and what the time investment does to the idea – as sewing is extremely time-consuming. But it has never been part of my agenda to use medium as a political statement. I’m not trying to argue for the legitimacy of craft, or for the legitimacy of women’s work. I feel as though that battle has already been fought and won. I’m thankful to just be able to use this medium because it aligns with my conceptual ideas.
AB: Is it critical to the narrative though?
SN: I would say that it is critical in terms of the stakes that the work has to me. The fact is that I am here in my studio all day, alone, sewing for eight to 11 hours. I don’t want to fetishise the labour-intensive aspect of it. But there is something magical in it for me, to give myself over to this process. And, in a way, the process fights back. The process almost dictates what the work will look like in the end.
AB: So the process will eclipse the original Photoshop collage from which you started working.
SN: Yes, totally. These images are so important to me, and the medium gives the image that solidification. Yes, it starts with the internet imagery and the narrative outline, but then while I’m working on the piece for this extended period of time, for two or three months, I’m forced to think more deeply about what it means. What are the implications of these narratives? How do they read to someone? So while I’m creating these uninhabited images of bodies or fantasy scenes, I have to be responsible for thinking about what they mean. It’s very important to me that people think about the image. Not just that it’s cool because it’s made out of thread.
AB: There is a complexity to each image you create, which is conveyed by how full each work is, with multiple groupings of figures or an abundance of nature. Formally, are you interested in exploring more minimalist frameworks? Do you want to make a work with just three figures?
SN: I love that question. I’ve had that in my mind for a long time, and will probably make something like that soon. I think that the narratives I’ve been using can actually be seen as uncomplicated or minimal, but, yes, I use a lot of ornamentation to capture the frenzy of the situation, for example.
AB: Do you think that narrative will continue to guide each work?
SN: Definitely. That is one thing that I know will never change. Forms could change, and certain themes will fade into the background and resurface. But they will always be narrative driven.
• Sophia Narrett: This Meant Nothing is on at Arts + Leisure, New York, until 28 June. Pussy Don’t Fail Me Now: Doreen Garner, Sophia Narrett and Kenya (Robinson), is at Cindy Rucker Gallery, New York, from 9 July.