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In the galleries: An artist pieces together his life story

Terence Nicholson’s “Safety Jacket: A Mourning in Chinatown,” on view at Willow Street Gallery. (Terence Nicholson/Willow St. Gallery)

Terence Nicholson could write a book. The native Washingtonian is an artist, a musician, and both a student and teacher of kung fu, as well as a witness to his city’s gentrification. Rather than pen a memoir, though, Nicholson has turned his reminiscences into the sculptures of “Intro-Circumspective.” The show at Willow Street Gallery consists of autobiographical assemblages whose ingredients range from random to the highly specific.

An example of the latter is “Safety Jacket: A Mourning in Chinatown,” which features the partly shredded banner of the downtown martial-arts school where the artist trained and taught until its 2016 eviction. That experience also is commemorated in “Intro-Circumspective,” a three-panel monument that includes the Chinese characters for “life” and “inside.”

Among the other chapters are Nicholson’s mother, “Our Lady of Perpetual Servitude,” a near-life-size figure in black, festooned with rubber nipples and mounted on a wall smeared with an oil-slick of a corona. Also memorialized is the artist’s struggle to refinance his house during the 2008 mortgage meltdown, symbolized by a white picket fence papered with shredded financial documents.

If much of Nicholson’s art makes ordinary objects appear ominous, there’s also exuberance here. “J’ai La Peche,” whose title is from a French idiom for high spirits, is a forbidding black crate with six raggedly cut slits. Yet a glimpse through the gashes reveals an ornate decorative box, dangling blithely. It suggests that the spirit within is stronger and freer than the circumstances that contain it.

Terence Nicholson: Intro-Circumspective Through March 4 at Willow Street Gallery, 6925 Willow St. NW. 202-882-0740.

Dorte Verner

Photographed in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, the subjects of Dorte Verner’s portraits are displaced people. Verner’s admiration of these refugees would be clear even if she didn’t call them “The Wonder People,” the title of her show at Photoworks. A Danish-born Washingtonian who’s an economist as well as a photographer, Verner is drawn to scenes in which expatriates nurture, innovate and even thrive: transporting water, cultivating maize, selling fish. Struggle is evident, but not emphasized.

The pictures employ clean, bright colors and generally avoid showy techniques. One shot of a boy at play with a hoop is mostly blurred to convey motion, but usually the focus is crisp, and the depth of field is unlimited. There are lots of close-ups and shots that center on just one or a few people, but also several wider compositions — notably a vivid image of a vast outdoor sleeping area in Belgrade, Serbia, a way station for refugees from many lands. More characteristic, however, is a moving portrait of a Somali woman who has wrapped her children in her cloak during a sandstorm in Djibouti. The situation is particular, the impulse universal.

Dorte Verner: The Wonder People Through Feb. 25 at Photoworks, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. 301-634-2274.

Ellyn Weiss

Black, gray and brown are the principal hues in Ellyn Weiss’s Athenaeum show, “Form and Void,” but the inspirations are not steel mills or coal mines. Although the D.C. artist’s work always draws from nature, she avoids its most picturesque aspects. These muted biomorphic paintings pay homage to extremophiles, creatures that thrive in the planet’s most hostile climes.

The largest picture is the most colorful, with yellow, silver and a bit of deep red amid the after-midnight shades. There also are gray-and-brown prints on clear acrylic and the show’s title piece, a hivelike construction of wire dipped in liquid plastic. Starker yet fascinating are a set of paintings made with tar on panels, the wood’s grain as central to the compositions as the smeared black goo. The pictures evoke lava fields, undersea gorges and other inhospitable places, and delight in finding beauty in the least glamorous of materials.

Form and Void: Ellyn Weiss Through Feb. 25 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria. 703-548-0035.

Rhonda J. Smith

Visitors can see the sights in Rhonda J. Smith’s “Travel as Talisman,” a selection of prints inspired by her visits to West Africa. But representational landscapes are largely submerged in this show at the BlackRock Center for the Arts. Spirals, concentric circles and random cross-hatching are foregrounded, and the frequent use of bluish green suggests a view through water.

The Maryland artist, who teaches at Shepherd University in West Virginia, achieved this effect by repurposing Plexiglas sheets previously used to protect her studio’s tables. After years of use, the surfaces were notched with inadvertent marks. Smith printed these atop more traditional pictorial elements to simulate gazing though a glass darkly — or, more exactly, greenly. The patterns resemble maps, batik designs and the perplexities of vision and memory, and the prints are most compelling at their least distinct. The effort to see clearly is fundamental to the journey.

Rhonda J. Smith: Travel as Talisman Through Feb. 24 at BlackRock Center for the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Dr., Germantown. 301-528-2260.

Kim & McGrath

In the strongest of her assemblage sculptures, Jean Jinho Kim makes the heavy appear light. The busiest of the smaller pieces in “The Space in Between,” the Korean-born Virginia artist’s show at Studio Gallery, can be haphazard. But the two largest ones are impressively fluid and bright, even though they’re made of such metal objects as a downspout and part of a car. These are twisted and painted yellow, so they seem botanical as much as industrial. The downspout sculpture, the free-standing “Roaming,” both defines and opens up the space in which it stands.

In the abstract paintings of “Helicon,” also at Studio, D.C. artist Kiki McGrath contrasts forms that are hard-edged and geometric with ones that are soft and loose. The works on canvas are colorful, yet less striking than the large wall drawing that offers a similar juxtaposition in black and white. The black square at the piece’s center is flanked by freer gestures on both sides, and the spirals on the left diminish into lines that emulate the shape of a 3-D element: a set of hanging branches. Painted black, the wood resembles a brushstroke in midair, hinting that even the simplest jotting owes its essence to nature.

Jean Jinho Kim: The Space in Between and Kiki McGrath: Helicon Through Feb. 24 at Studio Gallery, 2108 R St. NW. 202-232-8734.