Mounting an outside staircase to reach Thea Bellos' Berkeley photography studio, a marvelous, sunlit hallway leads a visitor on an international journey.

Past an ornate mosque in Istanbul, there's a bike perched on a roof in Valparaiso, a smiling Cuban, then a string of Panamanian Embera dancers, their chocolate-toned bodies dressed in lollipop-hued costumes to delight the eye. And behind every image there's a story; a fragile narrative made permanent by the instinctive eye of Bellos.

"Great art moves you. It stops you. It declares itself," she says, from a shared office that is filled to the brim with photos and the materials of her other existence as owner of The Bellos Group, a global marketing and management company. Talk soon turns naturally from Canon 5D's and Telephoto lenses to the Global Stewards Institute.

The longtime educator, who teaches leadership at universities, business schools and even on ships at sea, is charged about her latest adventure.

"I'm working with people from all over the world: the next generation of leaders. These people are brilliant, creative, living on the edge. We bring out what's amazing in each other," she exclaims.

Coming from the mouth of a 63-year old traveler who has conquered a powerful foe in the breast cancer she refused to succumb to, the words arrive with the same force, charisma, and boisterous tones of her pictures.

"I love color. I fell in love with the yellow in Vietnam and had to have it in my living room," she laughs.

Her photos, often described as painterly for their texture and masterful handling of color, reveal an architectural genius that transforms even a young girl's face into a construct of angled planes and patinated surfaces. Previewing an exhibit and upcoming September talk at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club, curator Lynn Curtis said she was attracted to Bellos' storytelling as much as to her artistry.

"Her works speak to us," Curtis says, through weathered faces and timeworn landscapes but mostly, "through Thea's heart and eye."

Attributing her wanderlust to growing up in New York and an irrepressible urge to connect with other people, Bellos says she is driven to engage.

"Photography forces me to be in the present. From digital shooting, I learned how to move in the world. My shots are very fast, but I'm aware of how (technology) impedes in people's lives," she says.

Bellos sometimes covers her camera with scarves to put her subjects at ease, but also, to protect herself.

"Sure, going into places at night, I've been afraid, but it's attuned me to being alive," she states boldly.

Two things she avoids are taking photos of people who object, or performing extensive post-shoot operations.

"I need to be able to stand behind my work," she declares. "I don't corrupt it."

Drawing parallels between her art and the economy of poetry and its underlying depth, Bellos calls the camera an extension of her world vision.

"The gift starts with the interaction," she says, referring to her relationship with people who view and purchase her images. "It's the storytelling: yours and mine. If I open up a window to you, that's what it's about."

Cancer opened two defining lessons for Bellos: "the shoe can drop at any time" and "you can't wait. We're here to manifest our dreams."

Divining stories from rich surfaces and the common people she calls "the most generous of all," Bellos' personal odyssey is also the world's -- in images bristling with emotion, intelligence, and breathtaking color.

IF YOU GO:
DATE: Sept. 24
TIME: 5:30 p.m. networking reception, 6 p.m. program
EXHIBIT: "Timeless Explorations: A Creative Odyssey" by Thea Bellos, Berkeley artist, photographer, educator, mentor; president, Global Stewards Institute. Bellos will speak about her exhibit on view at the Club office.
LOCATION: San Francisco Commonwealth Club office, 595 Market St. in San Francisco; 415-597-6700; www.commonwealthclub.org.
COST: $20, $7 for students (with valid ID), free for
members