Perhaps there’s more than one path to understanding. Glen Echo Park is now offering two, leading either to “Paper Complex” at the Popcorn Gallery or “Food for Thought” at the Stone Tower Gallery. Both shows feature Zen Buddhist symbols, although put to rather different uses.

“Paper Complex” is a three-artist show, but most of the work is by Jessica Beels and Saaraliisa Ylitalo. And it’s Ylitalo, who lived in Kyoto for five years, who incorporates Japanese motifs. She begins with handmade paper, whose texture is appealing in itself. Atop the fibrous medium she arrays calligraphy, rough-edged rectangles of gold leaf and the quickly brushed black circle known as an “enso.” In Buddhist iconography, both gold and the enso represent enlightenment.

Ylitalo’s style is eclectic and not always minimalist. One vivid, multilayered piece clusters tea bags on a woven basket form, topping the collage with a circular red swirl and splatters of gold. “Where the Light Gets In” is almost entirely veiled in gold leaf, with a breach in the gilding near the center, probably a reference to this by Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack . . . in everything/ That’s where the light gets in.” (Fans will recall that the singer-songwriter spent five years as a Zen monk.)

Not all of Ylitalo’s creations are so clearly of Asian or Buddhist derivation. A few less-calligraphic black circles suggest suns, and an assemblage of hanging strands of felted and spun paper is akin to Western fabric art. But whatever the metaphysical effects of the artist’s Japanese sojourn, that time in Kyoto certainly shaped her sense of design.

For Beels, the principal inspiration is nature, whether big or small. Most of her pieces here are made of flax paper over steel frames, emulating the elegant contours of leaves and shells but also the more complex — and sometimes less benign — structures of microorganisms. Among her suspended paper sculptures is a model of the human papillomavirus, intricate and ominous, that hangs over the gallery like a dark star.

The third contributor, Ellen Kennedy, arranges strips of pigmented paper in ways that are elaborate in execution and straightforward in effect. Stacked meticulously inside clear acrylic boxes, the shreds change hue gradually; one cycles through the entire spectrum. More austere is “River Blues: Two Columns,” whose spires are asymmetrical in width but entirely in grayish blues. In its hushed evocation of water, the piece is a bit like a Zen rock garden.

Next door at the Stone Tower Gallery in Akemi Maegawa’s “Food for Thought” the Buddhist figure is Daruma, a doll based on the legend of the monk who supposedly brought the practice of Zen Buddhism to China. The Japan-bred Maryland ceramist often includes versions of the egg-shaped doll, although that’s not the crux of this show. Instead, the centerpiece is a playful representation of an actual egg, “Your Sunny Side Should Be Up Chair,” which surrounds a large yellow stoneware yolk with an expanse of white carpet. The piece is not literally a chair, but is meant for lounging.

In her note on the show, Maegawa explains that the Japanese term for an egg cooked this way means “fried eyeball,” an off-putting image. She was delighted to learn the English phrase “sunny side up,” writing: “My feeling toward fried egg is now totally spiritual and uplifting.”

Despite the presence of a few Darumas — one of whose rounded bodies Maegawa turns into a strawberry — the show is more frisky than spiritual. Tinkering with scale, the artist offers a giant grain of rice and a piece titled “Life Got Too Sour,” a huge pickled plum topped by a tiny rice ball. (Usually, those proportions are reversed.) Among the other foodie motifs are baby bottles and fortune ‘cookies.

Food sustains life, but not forever. So Maegawa includes a cookie jar that’s also a funerary urn. If she dies in 2020, the container will hold her ashes. If not, it can be used for, say, Oreos. That’s a sunny prospect, but served with an intimation of mortality.

Jessica Beels, Ellen Kennedy & Saaraliisa Ylitalo: Paper Complex and Akemi Maegawa: Food for Thought Through Feb. 16 at the Popcorn and Stone Tower galleries, Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo.

The Heart We Left Behind

In 1944, with Soviet troops headed west, thousands of Ukrainians fled across the Baltic and sometimes beyond. Photographer Maria Spann, whose mother joined the exodus as a 5-year-old, documents the experience in a series of paired images titled “The Heart We Left Behind: Children of the 1944 Estonian Diaspora.” Rather than try to conjure what was abandoned, though, Spann focuses on something that went along for the ride.

In the pictures at Mehari Sequar Gallery, portraits of either a single person or a set of siblings are matched to close-ups of a lone item: a photo, a crystal vase, a wallet with currency of several nations, a dress made by a woman for her 3-year-old daughter. These things are posed on simple backgrounds, their only context the gray-haired emigres in adjacent photos. Most of the objects are talismans of a lost homeland; a few, such as a Swedish-Estonian dictionary, were picked up along the journey.

Spann shoots the object straight on but poses the people so they look to one side or, occasionally, at each other. They might be pausing in a conversation, or gazing into the past. The things they carried with them are simple; the thoughts they summon are complicated.

The Heart We Left Behind: Children of the 1944 Estonian Diaspora Through Feb. 13 at Mehari Sequar Gallery, 1402 H St. NE.

Brandell & Sahraeian

They’re both sketch artists of a sort, although Chris Brandell and Azadeh Sahraeian, now showing together at the Athenaeum, work in different media and modes. Brandell makes hazy paintings that include some drawn lines, while Sahraeian produces detailed drawings that appear more methodical yet are equally abstract.

The paintings are mostly in soft white, gray and tan, with small patches of dried-blood red and occasional text. They forgo organization, placing elements in seemingly random relationships. The drawings, all but one purely black and white, emanate from a single point in an organic manner, suggesting both plants and astronomical phenomena. The results are less different in style than mood. Brandell’s art has atmosphere; Sahraeian’s has urgency.

Chris Brandell & Azadeh Sahraeian Through Feb. 9 at the Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria.