Sculptor Pamela Soldwedel looks at a piece of rock and sees a living object, a soul compressed into stone, a personality shaped by eons of time. "You can see that it was formed by the pressures of the Earth," she says, cupping her long, slender fingers around an alabaster work she's titled "Naiad," a white, sparkling abstract. Her voice, smooth and reassuring like a kindergarten teacher's, is starting to rise and get a little breathy as she rubs her hands over the sculpture. This woman knows how to romance a stone. "It's the Earth itself you're working with," says Soldwedel, who opened a show of 17 stone and bronze sculptures last week in a storage vault that she's transformed into her own gallery. More on that later. "You and me and our forebears, way back when we were tiny fossils, we're in there. And to have those in your hand is a very exciting feeling."

Soldwedel, a native New Yorker who came to Washington 12 years ago, will travel great distances to get that exciting feeling. "You have to know people in the stone business," she says. "You have to go to one person, to another person, to another. They'll call and say they have the perfect rock, but you get there and it's not. So you have to go see each stone yourself." These in-person inspections have taken her to Tennessee, New Mexico, Idaho, South Carolina, Vermont and Carrara, Italy, in search of a single stone.

Now about that gallery setting: It's in a basement, in a vault (hence the show's title "The Vaulted Image") at Security Storage Co. on Florida Avenue NW. "I think it's great to show in a regular gallery. It's going along with the system and that's fine," says Soldwedel. "But traditionally a gallery will only show a partial selection of an artist. My aim is to have every available sculpture that I have on display at one time."

She's almost as proud of the new gallery space she's created as she is of her artwork. The space is small, little more than a 6-by-15-foot cinder-block room, but Soldwedel, 60, a tall and thin woman with beautiful, sharp features, moves around it regally, gently touching and buffing the patinas on her bronze sculptures. The space now boasts a carpeted floor, mirrored walls, track lighting and a ventilation system.

She had been renting the vault from the company to store pedestals and other art supplies, but she needed an exhibition space to show her works, which resemble nautilus shells or swirls of water and certain curves of the human form. She explains: "My regular studio is at the Cathedral Stone Company on Reed Street NW, but that's full of powdered limestone. In order to have people come by to see my work, I'd have to clean up my studio. It takes about eight hours."

The new gallery space will stay open indefinitely -- she rents it on a monthly basis -- and she'll keep replacing sculptures in "The Vaulted Image" show as they sell. "I thought it was kind of a crazy idea at first, but {the Security Storage management} went for it," she says with a laugh. And the best part, she says, is that "I'll always have a place to show my work."

Stunning View of a Troubled Earth

If a picture is worth a thousand words, any one scene from "Blue Planet" is worth a zillion. The new IMAX film, which opened Friday at Langley Theater in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, is a stunning look at our planet as a living being -- beautiful, volatile and extremely vulnerable.

"This is the closest that millions of people will get to a God's-eye view of the planet," said astronaut Shannon Lucid at the film's preview. Lucid served as a mission specialist on the October 1989 flight of the space shuttle Atlantis, one of seven missions between 1984 and this year that provided footage for "Blue Planet." "Everyone wants to bring back what goes on in a flight. It's hopefully a message from space."

The message is clear: Our blue orb is being battered by pollution and overpopulation and faced with dwindling resources.

Most of the scenes taken from the shuttle document man-made problems: shrinking lakes from global warming, clogged rivers from erosion, and air pollution from cars and factories. But at ground level, Mother Nature still has a few tricks of her own. Hurricane Hugo rips through South Carolina. A violent thunderstorm rolls across the mountains of Mexico. And the power of earthquakes is captured brilliantly with a computer-animated trip, created by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, through the San Andreas Fault. It's better than any ride at Disney World.

Narrator Toni Myers, who also wrote the script and edited the film, doesn't proselytize for environmental activism -- the images on the screen do that. The shimmering, thin blue line that surrounds the Earth looks both marvelous and fragile. It's a most eloquent argument for thinking globally and acting locally.

"Blue Planet" shows daily at the museum. Tickets are $2.75 for adults and $1.75 for children, students and senior citizens.