Carol Cole's sculptures, of several kinds, have always differed more in mood than in style. They are not meant to be understood so much as apprehended, through their maker's intense confidence and enthusiasm. The work, featured in a large Villanova exhibition, is characterized by modest precision, obsessive elegance, and a dislike of grandeur.

Cole, of Bala Cynwyd, has followed her own creative path with a seriousness and scope that led her from early-childhood awareness of the native arts of the American Southwest, to studies in art, history, and anthropology, to the present, when she scavenges found manufactured items - bottle caps, wooden spoons, junk, seashells - then combines them with handmade paper, textured paper pulp, and paint. She transform everyday objects into abstract sculptures, meticulous and sometimes extremely lightweight, though you'd never guess it to see them - shields inspired by ancient Etruscans, African and Indonesian examples, and totems galore.

This show's most surprising piece, her knockout Steinway Mandala, is made chiefly from parts from a 1920 Steinway grand piano. There's something stoic and bold in Cole's creative use of found objects. "I am a gatherer, not a hunter," she says, eyeing the ground underfoot for promising finds. A brilliant show. See it.

Present tense

Sometimes a neighborhood art center's competitive shows quietly add weight and prestige to the local art scene, encouraging us to look beyond regionalism and beyond abstraction to ways of both maintaining continuity and embracing the new. Cheltenham Center for the Arts' 69th annual Awards Show does an outstanding job of achieving precisely that.

The first thing I noticed about this 45-piece painting display, chosen from a barrage of entries by Sarah Archer, the Philadelphia Art Alliance's chief curator: It takes as much notice of life as it does of art.

Particularly expressive of our time globally is the show's most singular work, Robert Small's Bogeymen, a history painting tinged with emotion of a young woman playing chess with children's toys scattered about and Osama bin Laden and his henchmen standing menacingly behind her. The recent marking of the first anniversary of bin Laden's death, plus the news report that Pakistan has deported his widows and their children, make for an interesting coincidence.

Then there's Michelle Jenkins' Frankford Avenue, which eloquently portrays a lively Philadelphia thoroughfare. Jane Wilkie's New Year's Day Hunt, Devon humanizes a foxhunt, viewing it at close range - the first time I can recall seeing this theme in a competitive local show. Jacob Pinto's partially abstract Loyal & Holy King Taking Responsibility tantalizes with its subtle Israeli references. Paul Kane takes pride of place in a vigorous small group of abstractionists who include Rodger LaPelle, Merle Spandorfer, and Nancy Alter.

Figure subjects and the environment are strong categories here. Indeed, Ann Buss of Huntingdon Valley won the show's top award for her oil portrait Agnes, refreshing in the humble sincerity of its characterization and in its good handling of color and light. Kendra DiSimone, Jeanine LeClaire, Mateus Costa, Eleanor Day, Laura Pritchard, Elizabeth Heller, and Paul Hamanaka round out a substantial showing of artists focusing on portraits and the human figure. Environment, broadly interpreted, finds champions among Gillian Bedford, John Sevcik, Christopher Windle, Ken Dirsa, Steve Heigh, and Nick D'Angelo.

Cheltenham Center has reinventing itself of late, and clearly reestablishes here its longtime link with Philadelphia artists; 79 percent of those in the current show are artists from the city.

Women's work

"A Tribute to Women," the latest Old City Jewish Arts Center exhibition, is a spotty affair by five area artists, all of whom have interesting bios. Most distinctive of the works on view are those by watercolorist Sarah Yeoman and metalsmith Stacey Lee Webber.

Yeoman avoids many of the common pitfalls of watercolorists today, readily working both indoors and outdoors. Especially effective is her misty yet bright overview of downtown Philadelphia from the 33d floor of the Loews Hotel (the PSFS Building) - the evident inventiveness of this artist showing just how rich the watercolor tradition still is.

Webber, unpretentious yet possessed of serious ambition, though clearly outside any fashion or school, turns copper pennies into decorative objects. She also has neatly embroidered an old dollar bill.

With work by Gillian Bedford, Seena Elbaum, and Cheryl Levin, however, there's often the feeling that their artistry has been put aside before its most complete resolution could take place. Bedford's water lily series of oils is tamed here by the absence of its finest piece, Lily at Sunset, which is in Cheltenham's current group show. And what appears to be the best Levin piece on view here, an ice-skating abstraction, is actually a reproduction.