Sitting in her spare, windowless Northeast Washington studio, Yuriko Yamaguchi points to her poem:

Let me go back to the origin of being

before the problem of nationality and race

The earth and I.

The water and I.

The fire and I.

The air and I . . .

"Woman and Air," a 5-by-8-foot drawing of a life-size reclining woman, fills one wall. Two rock-like images at her feet and head hold two intersecting arcs that rise to center top. Yamaguchi's special "vocabulary" of small, variously shaped wooden forms -- that are sometimes likened to tools -- dance through the arcs. The work is tense, yet harmonious, reflecting the "conjugation of opposites" that resolve in what the artist calls "the cohesiveness of nature."

Yamaguchi's conceptual images of nature's essences both fascinate and mystify. She has made a long journey from her birth in Japan, to California, to the University of Maryland, to professional success at age 37. The Buddhist and Shinto traditions of Japan speak in her work: Shinto animates nature spirits much as she evokes nature's rhythms, and harmony with nature is one of Buddhism's teachings.

Despite the difficulty and subtlety of Yamaguchi's "language," her work appeals to serious collectors and critics. She first showed at the Manassas Fine Art Exhibition, a mostly amateur show in a suburban school auditorium, five years ago. Since then she's had solo exhibitions at the Foundry Gallery, Gallery 10, Gallery K, the Washington Project for the Arts, and was one of only two area artists to be included in the Hirshhorn's 10th anniversary "Content" show.

Yamaguchi experienced great loneliness when she came to the United States at age 23. Probably because of the language barrier, she began to express her feelings in paintings and sculptures, and found comfort in a different kind of nature than she had known in Japan. "There were days when the grandeur of nature made me realize the smallness of existence and the foolishness of worrying about the trifles of daily life," she says.

"Ultimately, I lost the awareness of being Japanese and experienced myself as a tiny anonymous part of the vast universe. Such a psychological transition manifested itself clearly in my work, and less obvious -- and more universal -- motifs developed."

A traumatic childhood experience for Yamaguchi was her grandmother's death in 1966. She recalls, "My grandmother was cremated according to a traditional custom in Japan, and I had not forgotten the shocking experience of picking up my grandmother's bones. The relatives all paid their last respects to the deceased just before the cremation, and within two hours we found her there as ashes. Feeling the frailty of human life, I gathered them carefully and put them in a pot. A person leaves bones after death as evidence of his or her life. Where is the soul? Maybe reflected on the survivors? But still part of the universe! Since that day I have been increasingly mystified with life."

Her concern with the mystery of life, as experienced in a physical being and spiritual existence, is the essence of her art. It is this intensity of feeling and search that envelops the viewer.

Although Yamaguchi graduated with a degree in studio art from the University of California in 1975, it was study with Anne Truitt and Richard Klank at the University of Maryland that focused her philosophy and art. At first she concentrated on painting, but then became more interested in adding three-dimensional parts.

One of these elements was rope, and Truitt helped her to see she was reaching back to her Japanese roots. "Rope as the Symbol Expressing the Integration of Physical Existence and Metaphysical Being" was the title of her master of fine arts thesis. Rope, used with wood and paper, also became the link to her wood constructions. She found wood easier to handle, to make more subtly shaped pieces. She married computer programmer Hiroyuki Yamaguchi in a traditional Japanese arranged marriage; their baby boy Seiji was born last December. "Transition," a wall-sized piece at Middendorf, expresses her conflicts on becoming a mother.

"It symbolizes many things for me," Yamaguchi says. "It expresses the physical and psychological transition in being one to two. I was bearing the child inside my stomach, then he was outside. It was very difficult at the beginning to accept, and to have to be a mother, and to accept the baby as my son. It was really a psychological trauma.

"Now I feel relieved at the end of the day when I return to being a mother. The child makes me very relaxed at night."

The large hand, with five extended fingers pointing to many smaller elements, is both a physical and spiritual symbol for the artist. "The hand is the first tool," she says. "By the hand humans make handmade tools, which is the way humans develop. A hand has two sides. It can be very useful in good ways, and it can be used for destruction.

"Why five fingers?" she asks. "Because the five fingers represent the five elements essential for our lives."

Her work continues to chant:

The earth and I.

The water and I.

The fire and I.

The air and I.