Tortured artists can come in all shapes and sizes. In Mara Sprafkin’s case, creative frustration struck at the tender age of five during a Brooklyn Museum art class.

“My parents were in another gallery and the teacher had to find them because I was hysterical,” recalls Sprafkin, 27. “I was really upset because I couldn’t get whatever I was trying to draw to look like it did in my head. So from then on in, we all knew there was trouble.”

Call it poetic justice, then, that female hysteria is one of various themes Sprafkin addresses in her show, “Valley of the Vapors,” currently at the March gallery in New York. The exhibit’s title and many of the works therein were inspired by some late Seventies Harlequin romance novels Sprafkin found on eBay whose circular vignette covers proved intriguing. (The show’s name is a riff on one of the book’s titles, “Valley of the Vapours.”)

“There was something about this porthole of looking into someone’s private life, something very voyeuristic,” explains Sprafkin of the images, which she used in drawings and silk screen prints.

In addition to the Harlequin ladies, Sprafkin — who primarily employs drawing, silk screen and large Xerox transfer techniques — drew on a combination of pop culture, feminine motifs like doilies and even J. Crew catalogue models, whom she has drawn so many times they have become a doll-like part of her visual repertoire. One series, entitled “It Girls,” consists of 38 Times Square postcards on which she made a collage of gold vinyl women and juxtaposed lyrics from Madonna’s song “Material Girl.”

“I’m really into reality TV. I love ‘Gossip Girl.’ I’m really fascinated by contemporary culture. I actually think Britney Spears is the most interesting person of our generation….There’s all these women in gossip magazines and blogs and they’ve all had problems and Britney just blew them all out of the crazy water,” says Sprafkin, who listened to the singer’s “Blackout” album nonstop while working on this exhibit.

Sprafkin grew up the only child of a corporate philanthropist mother and lawyer father. She majored in studio art at Bowdoin College and earned an MFA from Columbia University in 2006.

This story first appeared in the February 28, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

And, though her works can go for upward of $5,000 and have landed in the collection of Spyros Niarchos, among others, Sprafkin maintains a low-key approach to how her work is appreciated.

“I want people to like my stuff and hang it up,” she says simply. “I mean, the gallery would kill me, but I would give all my art away if I could, if it would just hang on walls.”

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