an isolated stone bench beneath a leafy oak, a shimmering pool of water, a gravel path bordered by well-tended shrubs -- have become a sweet obsession of Montgomery College art professor Barbara Davis Kerne.

Private oases in public places, scenes that "convey a sense of escape from the chaos of the world," form her central images, and for the past few years she has sought these spaces at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, specifically -- over the last year -- in its Ellipse Garden.

Her series of large oil paintings, etchings and monoprints depicting scenes of the garden and the Lover's Lane Pool are on display at the Montgomery College (Rockville campus) art gallery through Oct. 19.

"I like to paint spaces where an individual can retreat for contemplation or reading," says Kerne. "Places where I feel comfortable, quiet spots which somehow show the impact of the people who inhabit them, though the people aren't there."

In each work the focal point is a spot, often a chair or bench, where the visitor rests while contemplating the peaceful solitude of the surroundings. "In the Ellipse Garden it is the repetition of elements -- trees, gravel, walkways, benches -- that gives me a feeling of being at one with the world." It is also, she says, her discovery that its perfect symmetry hides unsuspected variety and change.

"At first," she recalls, "I thought the garden was too symmetrical and wouldn't be interesting in a painting. But as I spent more time there, I came to understand it has as many moods as there are days and changes in the weather and light. The atmosphere alters drastically with the changing seasons. What I am doing is expressing my response to these changes. And depending on where I stand, I see a different perspective, so it raises the question of what symmetry means."

So fascinated with the Ellipse Garden is Kerne that she has begun preliminary work for an extended series of paintings of the garden in spring and summer, though each will stand alone as a separate composition. She begins her work with on-site drawings and color slides. Back in her Potomac studio she follows with watercolor studies that become the basis for the oil paintings, color etchings and aquatints.

While her paintings are realistic, Kerne uses color expressively to convey the light, mood and atmosphere of natural scenes. But she also considers color a structural element. "Each area of the canvas," she points out, "consists of brush strokes of many different colors working interactively."

When the image intrigues her because of its inscrutability, Kerne does black-and-white etchings. "Black and white has a mystery about it . . . The Chinese said black and white was the ultimate in art because it takes the most involvement on the part of the viewer."

Born in the Bronx, a graduate of Brooklyn College and the University of Maryland, Kerne has felt a compulsion to paint since she was 5 and criticized the kindergarten teacher's color choice on a classroom display. She began teaching at Montgomery College in 1972 and showing her work professionally. Recently, Kerne's paintings and etchings have appeared in such varied shows as the Boston Printmakers 37th National Exhibition and the Society of American Graphic Artists Invitational Travelling Exhibition in China.

"What keeps me working," says Kerne, "is my need to reach that inner personal vision and emotional concept of what I want to portray. There's a 'handwriting' that every artist has. It's also what I teach my students -- to have the confidence to grow while still keeping their own personal handwriting. I've found that teaching makes me think carefully about what I'm doing."

Yet beyond intellectualization, believes Kerne, is the power and life of the work. "The work takes over and there's always a surprise. Then the viewer, I hope, finds a deeper understanding of what is around."

Gallery hours are Monday, Tuesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.