Sophia Narrett asks really big questions with her artwork.
Such as: If you love someone, does that give meaning to life? Can a man or woman replace religion for another person?
Narrett doesn’t answer those questions in the exhibition “I Was Dreaming This,” showing through June 21 at Space Gallery in Portland. Rather, she leads viewers to explore them intellectually and visually with a series of paintings that are at once unusual, beautiful and curious.
Narrett paints evocative, textured scenes of human figures in odd, uncomfortable and sometimes compromising poses — bodies draped over trees, portraits of faces full of fear, groups of people huddled together in a tribal-like manner.
But it’s not the acrylic-on-board paintings that fully capture the imagination. Although her acrylic paintings are ripe with content, it’s her embroidery that causes one to stop and look again.
Narrett makes large embroideries of forest scenes populated with men and women groping on the ground, lying naked or picking flowers. She calls these “embroidered paintings,” and they are deliciously full of detail and meticulous in their execution.
Many are large — “Still Burning” is almost 5 feet wide, and depicts a scene of women naked on the ground with clothed men standing over them holding flowers. Horses graze nearby.
Are the women alive? Are the men honoring them? Why are they naked?
“I wouldn’t say that I think of these images as disturbing. But some people certainly will experience them that way,” Narrett said. “There are elements of darkness in love, and I think these question the meaning of love. There is sadness in this imagery, just as there is sadness in love.”
The pieces are blurry and dreamy, consistent in tone and texture with the title of the show. Like a dream we can’t quite recall, the paintings remain elusive. We’re never quite sure what we are looking at. We can describe them generally, but the details remain elusive in our retelling.
Narrett finds inspiration for her work through literature and song. Many of the titles of her pieces come from favorite books, and the scenes sometimes stem from passages.
“No Matter How Many Skies Have Fallen” comes from D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” (“We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”) She also cites Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers” and “My Antonia,” and Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.”
“I love early 19th-century fiction,” she said, “and I enjoy making work that is full of literary references.”
Narrett is working toward her master of fine arts degree at Rhode Island School of Design. She did her undergraduate work at Brown University in Providence, R.I., after one year at Johns Hopkins. After graduating, she stayed in Providence and took a part-time job to support herself while she began her studio practice.
She started making her embroidered paintings in 2011, and was initially attracted to the colors and flexibility of the thread. She appreciated the ability to make precise turns with the thread, and found herself creating images that mimicked her brushwork.
“It was natural to try making images with the thread,” she said.
As she delved into this work, Narrett found herself running wild with her imagination and compelled to tell stories. These paintings read like a book, though the outcomes of her stories remain elusive.
“I think this work represents an emotional experience as opposed to a full narrative,” Narrett said. “I am grabbing at little fragments that were true to an experience.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or