EMERGING ARTIST: My parents exposed me and my siblings to all the arts while growing up in Queens, and then in Silver Spring. We each had different creative interests -- photography, theater, music, literature. When I was 14, I stepped back to look at a piece I'd just finished, a pop-art sculpture of an ice cream sundae, and knew that visual arts would be my future.

VIEW MASTER: Formal training in art was just the beginning. The world was my real school. In 1998, I opened Little City Art Studio for children in Bethesda, which is still going strong. As the space gained recognition, I began offering more exhibitions to enhance the cultural scene. By forming Gallery Neptune in 2003, I help people learn about the work of regional artists.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: At my monthly art talks, people can view new artists' works and learn about their techniques and the stories behind the pieces. I share stories about each artwork and its creator -- for example, Helga Thomson, a local printmaker whose background includes the two very distinct influences of Argentina and Germany, brings together both sensuous line and clear, bold imagery. We discuss what people have hanging on their own walls and how to select artwork that you want to live with. This goes beyond simply buying something to "match the couch." I really want people to see how exhilarating it is to own a stimulating, original piece of art.

SURREAL WORLD: Visitors who come to the gallery also can meet artists at exhibit openings, and sometimes I can arrange a visit to an artist's studio. Once a year at my talks, I include my own work. At other times, people can come into my studio in the back of the gallery. In my acrylic paintings, I employ bold, colorful imagery in which surrealistic themes feature objects, animals and people. I also create small mixed-media sculptures; I'm now working on a series of anthropomorphic birds in nylon skirts.

PASSION FLOWERS: The passion I have for making and teaching art seems to spread to those who visit my gallery. I look for finely crafted contemporary work that reflects the artist's life experiences, which are often themes that affect viewers in emotional, intellectual and spiritual ways. David Wallace combines found documents and etchings, some 100 years old, with messages for the 21st century. And Anna Edholm Davis imposes mosaics made from tens of thousands of bits of paper upon acrylics of stylized figures.

START SMART: So often, people ask, "Whose work should I collect. How do I start?" Whether you're spending $1,000 or $100, you want a work that holds meaning for you, and with fine craftsmanship so it will last. Look closely at a lot of art. Study how artists handle the materials. If what jumps out at you are unintentional flaws -- an underpainted area, how a canvas is stretched -- that's a problem. Look at the back of the piece; a dedicated artist attends to parts people don't see -- the electronic components of neon art, the archival-quality paper and inks used for prints.

SELF-EXPRESSIONISM: Well-chosen art gives your home personality in a way that reveals your sense of who you are. You are shaped by your environment, and your environment should be shaped by you. You can create an environment that is a delight and comfort to come home to every day. You can use art to inform, to express a message, to check in with your own morality. Inspiration can take many forms. Someone mesmerized by Vladimir Nabokov's writings about butterflies purchased a collage in which a butterfly rises from a human body. I own pieces by Scott G. Brooks, whose style has been likened to a contemporary visionary-subversive movement called "lowbrow." His works are dark, honest comments on the degradation of society. In one of his graphite drawings, three children in cowboy costumes stand over a slaughtered companion dressed as an American Indian; a fast food restaurant beckons in the background. Don't let trends or other people dictate what artwork to buy. Instead, find art with which you feel an immediate connection, which moves you to think, "that would look so amazing in my home."

SENSE APPEAL: This summer, the gallery featured amazing wire sculptures of heads that looked like 3-D gestural ink drawings. They were both primitive and complex. When a couple decided to buy one, the woman told me that the sculpture was the only thing that had interested her husband for quite a while. He had seen the work after a visit to NIH for a degenerative brain disease, and this piece of art had helped him transcend his grief.

ART OF THE DEAL: Many talented regional artists offer work for a wide range of incomes, and galleries generally price competitively. Visit as many local galleries as possible. The owners will get to know your tastes and alert you to new work and artists. Pricing increases as an artist's reputation grows, so it pays to collect the early work of someone you admire.

As told to Robin Tierney

Harrison offers free art talks on the second Friday of each month. Her next talks are Friday at noon, 12:30 and 1 p.m. Gallery Neptune, 4808 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. 301-718-0809. www.galleryneptune.com.

Harrison sits with one of her seven mermaid portraits in the back of Gallery Neptune. Her artistry extends beyond her own work, as she teaches others about the art world.