By BONNIE WELLS, Staff Writer
Monday, December 2, 2002 -- The day after Judith Ellen Sanders of Pelham earned a master's degree in science from the University of Massachusetts, she went out and got herself an art studio and began painting full time.

"In this tiny cell, there are these worlds, one thing turning into another," Sanders says, bending over a biochemistry book in her Amherst studio. "That's what I want to convey in my work, all this transformation. Science made me want to go into the studio and translate that sense of expansiveness on canvas."

Her stunning translations have been exhibited at Bentley College in Waltham, at the UMass Medical Center in Worcester and in the State House offices of Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst). Starting this week, a collection of her recent work will be on view at the Burnett Gallery at Jones Library in Amherst. "Variations on a Few Different Themes" opens with a reception Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m., during the downtown Amherst Gallery Walk, and will also be celebrated in a reception Saturday from 2 to 4 p.m.

Sanders' large-scale abstract acrylic paintings on paper and canvas share a family resemblance, balancing a precision of line with a profusion of images in a broad range of bold colors.

"I want the work to be approachable," she says. "I want people to get lost in the piece."

Her painting "Latitudes," which measures 74 inches by 104 inches, is dominated by a circle overlaid with a grid. Grids turn up in several of her paintings, providing a structure for her welter of images to move into and through.

"I try to access feelings of freedom, liberation and expansion, but also groundedness and solidity," Sanders says. "The grid gives a sense of order; breaking out of it gives a sense of liberation."

Each square of the "Latitudes" grid holds one of Sanders' recurring forms - some are bird-like, some suggestive of flames or water. From outside the circle, a multicolored chain of circles enters, meandering through the composition and out the other side, its several ends capped with arrow-shaped bulbs. As the chain moves through, its color both changes and is changed by the hues of the spaces it traverses.

"I take advantage of all the textures and tones in one color," Sanders says. "I'll make a set of colors, and then make another whole other set [using white to make it] lighter.

She begins her monumental pieces with a rough sketch, which is then photographed and projected onto the canvas. To get the clean, crisp lines she favors, she then lays tape demarcating the forms - a long process during which the composition may shift and change.

"I spend hours to get the shapes right for me," she says. "There are lots of ways to evoke a bird, but only one way that gives me that sense of expansion."

When she's satisfied with the form, she moves to painting - "and I see what new feelings we can get once we mix the form with the color."

When the painting of forms is complete, in tiny brushstrokes that create a textured effect, she rips off the tape, retapes and paints the lines.

"The crisp lines give a sense of resolution," she says. "There's a lot going on in the paintings; the lines help you take it in and digest it."

Throughout her work, Sanders says she's always trying to depict transformation - the sort of potential for change and growth that fascinated her in a living cell - which she feels is needed more than ever in the post-9/11 world.

"You can tell from my work that a lot of patience goes into it," Sanders says. "It's all baby steps. What I want to convey is that with small steps and patience there is progress. With little steps we can have big victories."