Painter Laura Sanders describes water, a recurring setting in her portraits, as "at once mystical and mundane," but her work suggests that's quite the understatement. Whether natural or artificial, the bodies of water Sanders depicts are wondrously alive with light, movement, human forms and varying depths of meaning.

Painter Laura Sanders describes water, a recurring setting in her portraits, as "at once mystical and mundane," but her work suggests that's quite the understatement. Whether natural or artificial, the bodies of water Sanders depicts are wondrously alive with light, movement, human forms and varying depths of meaning.

A Dayton-area native who's lived in Columbus since attending CCAD in the mid-'80s, Sanders began working with water about three years ago. Her first local solo exhibition of these paintings is currently on the walls of Rebecca Ibel's Short North gallery.

"It started with this sort of funny idea of a way to show humans like animals, really objectify them in their natural habitat," she explained. "I saw this photograph of young girls trying to do normal things like go shopping in this big flood, and my imagination went with it. As I kept going, there were just so many aspects of water I liked."

Originally, Sanders thought of stopping after a handful of water paintings. A change of heart came during a 2008 Ohio Arts Council Residency in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a community that's geographically two-thirds seashore.

"I started getting more into water itself," she recalled. "It became more dominant, as important as figures. The water was so clear, and I'd been working with these murky Ohio reservoirs. When you could see the depth, the distortions were really fascinating. The figures move and then the environment moves around them in response."

Sanders' persistence brought its own notable response. She was the cover artist for last year's Midwest edition of New American Paintings, an annual, regional curated exhibition in print. Her work is currently making its second trip with Ibel to Florida for the contemporary art fair Art Miami, and was presented at Art Chicago in May. The artist has also had the luxury of painting full-time this year thanks to funds provided by an OAC Individual Excellence Award.

For many of these paintings, Sanders has had handy subjects in her now 11-year-old daughter and her friends, taking them out for swimming and posing for the multiple reference photos used for individual works. She explained that recently, a greater interest in other natural elements - sunshine, weather - has been making its way into the work.

"I'm working with the paint a lot," she added. "The cool thing about paint is it's like water - you can get it to that consistency where it's flowing. It's fun to play with the materiality of it, so I do take a lot of liberties."

The results are consistently beautiful - paintings you wish you could jump into, especially on a cold December day. Hypnotic waves and ripples reflect dapples of light and refract toy flotation devices. A bright blue pool liner becomes something stunning.

Though her imagery can be idyllic, Sanders explained that she frequently uses child subjects not just for convenience, but to suggest human vulnerability to a natural force we need and play with but can't control. As the artist's daughter approaches her teen years, her appearance in the water has begun to raise other concerns that understandably give Sanders pause as a mother.

And while water wings and inflatable donuts are shown in warm, lovely shades, Sanders' feelings about plastic, particularly when combined with water, are made clear by the title of one piece displaying more of these than any other - "Jetsam."