Darrel Morris heard about the horrible fate of three-legged chicks–pecked to death by their own mothers–long before he turned it into embroidery. It was back when he was a kid, growing up on the hardscrabble remains of a family farm in rural Kentucky, trying desperately to fit in well enough to survive.

His father was a coal miner and a fire-and-brimstone Baptist with a temper sharpened by chronic insomnia. “Seeking pleasure, finding none,” was his watchword, Morris says. “Anything that wasn’t work was somehow sinful.”

The third of four children, Morris was the regular target of his father’s wrath. A gangly, shy kid (“always too tall for my age”), he was useless at sports and, as an undiagnosed dyslexic, a disaster in school. Mostly he hung out with his grandmother, who taught him to braid the rags she sewed into rugs and entertained him with tales of family lore: the uncle who was the seventh son of a seventh son and could cure diseases; the marriageable daughter who greeted a rich suitor with shit on her face. When he drew pictures, she hung them on her walls.

Eventually Morris left home and picked up a string of college degrees. (“It wasn’t until I got to college that I even learned I had dyslexia,” he says.) While working on an MFA at the School of the Art Institute in the mid-1980s, “looking for a way to put a line under tension,” he stumbled on embroidery. He became fascinated with the spidery, obsessive subtleties of building an image out of a stitched surface. Since then he’s been turning out pieces whose autobiographical subject matter, satirical tone, and painterly technique stand the expectations for this traditionally decorative medium on their ear.

The 17 Morris embroideries in the current show at Wood Street Gallery make it clear that his Kentucky childhood is undergoing the intense recycling that turns experience into art. In one piece after another, a powerful, blaming father figure faces off against a cringing, hapless child. The father is likely to be a florid giant in an appliqued herringbone suit, his anger pulsing through a dense skin of multicolored sewing thread; the child, a mere outline–a transparent wisp, backed into a corner and in danger of disappearing altogether. The theme is repeated at home, on a baseball field, and eventually in corporate offices.

The three-legged chicken makes an appearance too. Wet and bedraggled, he has just emerged from the safety of his egg. While his two-legged brothers (happy appliques lifted from a children’s book) cavort behind him in grass so masterfully blended you itch to wiggle your toes in it, the mother hen turns her attention to this offensively different offspring. Blood is already spilling from his eye.

A group show called “Storytellers” continues at Wood Street Gallery, 1239 N. Wood, through October 8. Admission is free; hours are 10 to 6 Tuesday through Friday, 9 to 5 Saturday. Call 227-3306 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.