Sweet Science
Judith Ellen Sanders: a biologist's training, as artist's eye
By Lisa Gallay
From the Valley Advocate, News & Arts Weekly, January 4-10, 1996

In a building not known for its splashy color scheme, the paintings of Judith Ellen Sanders look like visitors from a brighter planet, an infusion of Sesame Street in a CNN landscape.

Early Journey, an exhibit of paintings and works on paper, occupies the second floor gallery of City Hall in Northampton (for those unfamiliar with City Hall, that's straight through the castle gates and up the first staircase on the right). Sponsored by the Northampton Arts Council, the exhibit opened Dec. 4 and continues through the end of January.

It will come as no surprise to viewers that Sanders has a dual background in biology and art.

Her work reflects the intricacy of biological patterns and probes the mystery of living energy. She incorporates organic forms, intricate patterns and intense color combinations to produce pieces that both celebrate the highly ordered patterns of the natural world and strive to evoke the elusive energies that animate it. The forms in several of her pieces suggest microscopic structures or biological organisms, such as knots of DNA or waving strands of kelp. Although Sanders describes her work as "departing from the real world and what can be seen by the visual eyes [and] enter[ing] the realm of the inner world and what can be experienced by the mind's eye," her paintings resound with a scientific accent.

One has the sensation of watching a sensitive scientific mind grapple with and respond to the mystery and wonder of the natural world, to the part of biology that doesn't yield its secrets to the scientific method. It's as if in painting an interior landscape (or seascape, as it so often seems in these pieces), Sanders is replaying the parts of her scientific study that science itself could not describe: the grandeur and mystical energy of growing life forms, the elegant shapes of creatures and plants, the way they retain their elegance and their curiously visible power and vitality at the microscopic level. Sanders' work represents a visual expression of both the questions that remain where science leaves off and of the images that haunt a sensitive consciousness. It is precisely this sort of haunting that lies behind most interdisciplinary work. When one language (or discipline) won't do, try two.

As you ascend the staircase, the vivid oranges and purples of "Symphonia" appear over the gray banister like a mirage. The large acrylic is one of the strongest pieces in the show, and a well-placed first impression.

Comprised of a central form shaped like a stylized conch shell set in a carefully constructed frame of patterned boxes and falling leaves, the piece explores themes of rhythm, of the sources and shapes of energy and of gradual, measured metamorphoses. Both the conch shape and the leaves seem to emanate from a source in the upper left corner. The conch shape grows and expands in long widening fingers of color from a point of origin in the upper left corner of its section of the canvas. The delicate green leaves which cascade over the conch form and across the tile-like patterned blocks also originate from a single point in the uppermost left corner of the painting. The parallel sources of origin shadow each other, even as the sweeping growth of the conch and the rain-like patterning of the leaves describe different kinds of energy: metamorphosis within a single organism and movement among members of a group. The painting also delineates stages of transformation in both the patterns of the blocks and the changing colors of the conch.

"Growth III" (pastel on paper) traces the unfolding, blossoming motion and deepening colors of a plant form. Based on a simple heart-shaped pod, the design follows a chain of linked pods as they rise, spread out, change color, and seem to create blooms, leaves and a sturdy stalk. Sanders' careful rendering of the pods' edges draws our attention to the delicacy and grace of the basic form. The arrangement of color changes in stages, from pod to pod, mimics the separate steps of growth and hints at collective progress: members of a group arriving cooperatively at a goal unattainable for them as individuals. The plant's construction is also reminiscent of the way shapes are repeated in nature, each one individually beautiful and built into larger (and equally beautiful) structures. Exquisitely shaped roses are constructed from exquisitely shaped petals, and so on.

Interlocking heart-shaped forms reappear in "Once Again", a small, square acrylic on canvas. In this piece, however, the chain of linked hearts evokes a ropy loop of DNA. The loop reclines on a deep blue and green background patterned with tiny sponge-like swirls. Long kelp-like strands overlay the scene, enhancing the impression of life forming in an undersea environment.

In "Luminescence", Sanders creates a complex structure that explores the character of different forms of illumination. The painting is built carefully in layers; four light sources send searchlight beams into the painting's interior from the corners; layered over them are long strands and V-shaped strokes of color reminiscent of light slanting through and dappling on the surface of water.

Sanders develops dramatic tension by juxtaposing expressiveness and rigidity. In "Symphonia" she creates the sinuous curves of the conch and rhythmically falling leaves within a strict design framework. Her meticulously executed designs incorporate clean black borders and clearly delineated bands of color. When a color changes shade, it does so across a strictly ordered series of frames, so that we see the yellow transmute into red in stages of black-bordered orange. Many of her strokes are so sharply defined and spotlessly executed they appear taped. Her intent may be to create a clean, tightly structured design that allows the energy of the shapes and colors to come forward.

When this techniques succeeds, the expressive elements of Sanders' work virtually explode between the structured borders of her style. Where it is less successful, the pieces lose balance, unyielding design overwhelms the emotional content of the painting and saps the shapes and colors of the very grace and energy Sanders wishes to emphasize. What becomes clear throughout the show is the power and pull of both disciplines -- the impulse to define and order the universe that marks a scientific mind, and the attraction to the wonder and mystery of the natural world that inspires a passionate one.