Gay Riseborough has been a portraitist for most of her career, faithfully rendering the real world. She still does that to pay the bills, working in her Evanston studio. But about seven years ago she also began painting scenes that exist only in her head--symbolic, autobiographical images rendered in a dark, old masters' palette. Take, for example, Sunset at the Family Tree, in which Riseborough perches high above a city skyline on a tree limb that's about to be chopped off by a masked man and a woman wearing a British flag dress. Riseborough, accustomed to using photographs as a "resource" when she paints, stitched up the dress, pulled together the props, and staged parts of the scene with professional models for a photographer before she started making the sketch that she would "grid up" on a five-by-four-foot canvas. That's been her procedure, she says, since the first of these scenes--Pieta, featuring herself as a grieving modern mother, a jeans-clad young man apparently dying in her lap--"took hold of me and had to get out." Like each of the images that followed, it came from experience. "To me they have very specific meanings, and were a way of working through things," she says. "But to other people they often have other meanings. They come up with their own stories. I really like that. I feel it's my reward, since these paintings are not very salable." Sunset at the Family Tree and Pieta are among 14 Riseborough oils included in an exhibit, "Dark Times II," that opens Thursday, May 2, with a reception from 5 to 8 at Oakton Community College's William A. Koehnline Gallery, 1600 E. Golf in Des Plaines. Gallery hours are 10 to 5 Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, 10 to 6 Wednesday and Thursday; the free exhibit continues through June 7. Call 847-635-2633.