IT IS ONE of those stories that myths are made of, but this one has the advantage of being true.

Three years ago Washington artist Richard Dempsey lost a leg and stopped painting, much to the dismay of his fans and friends, including dealer Franz Bader. As Bader tells it, he went to visit Dempsey one night last year to cheer him up, and on the way home was hit broadside in his VW by a car that ran a light. Bader, an octogenarian, ended up in pretty bad shape himself.

"I felt terrible, and kept calling to ask what I could do," says Dempsey, "and Franz kept saying there was nothing. But finally he said, 'How about painting me a picture?' I did, and when I delivered it, tears ran down his cheeks. It kicked me back into working, and now the stuff is coming out of my ears."

The show of Dempsey's abstract watercolors now at the International Monetary Fund is insufficient celebration of such a happy event, but it does offer a fresh look at the extraordinary vitality of his art. These are not all new works--in fact most were made in 1975 and 1976 after a six-month stay in Jamaica, when he turned from recognizable imagery to abstract expressionism. He also began turning out the best work of his long career.

"I used to sit in the marketplace and draw, but at that point I began to train myself and my eye to remember, and now I go back to the studio and the drawings just come out," says Dempsey. These richly varied mood pieces, all based on his response to place--North Carolina as well as Jamaica--reveal him to be an expressive colorist of the highest order.

Unfortunately, there are no labels on these exuberant works, thus depriving the viewer of the pleasure of decoding Dempsey's tantalizing titles, such as "Searching for Love" and "I Bend Over You." But the show does reveal a highly articulate artist in his prime, and once again going full tilt. A retrospective of his work will be shown in Haiti next year. How about Washington?

The International Monetary Fund is located at 700 19th St. NW, and is open to the public Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. , through April 2. Visitors must sign in and present identification to be admitted to the building.

Constance Costigan

The new show at Barbara Fiedler Gallery, 1621 21st St. NW, brings good news to those who feared that Constance Costigan was in something of a rut. Her bleak, tightly controlled, black-and-white pencil drawings of rolling hills--exhibited at the Phillips Collection and elsewhere in recent years--have at last given way to vigorous new drawings that bristle with both color and energy.

And energy, the odd sort generated by icons and other symbolic power objects, is what these works are all about. As before, imaginary landscape provides the setting for these colored chalk drawings, but it has now been "peopled" with mysterious presences--what the artist calls "Numina"--defined in the dictionary as "symbolic power objects." "I'd lived many years in the southwest," explains Costigan, "and became interested in symbolic objects that help transport people from one spiritual plane to another--such as, among the Indians, the owl's feather, or, among Catholics, the bones of saints used in reliquaries."

Costigan's "power objects" are of a less specific sort: always mysterious, some look like haystacks or wrapped stones; others are tall, thin sticks that stand as sentinels, as in "Maelstrom: We Will Bend But Not Break." Here as elsewhere, the numina and sentinels seem to both cause and fall victim to the storms that blow around them, the weather made palpable through the densely packed layers of swirling line. "Until recently," says Costigan, "I was concentrating on the object itself and its environment. In these drawings, I am trying to say something about the space between the objects." She has achieved this with various degrees of fluency, with the works like "Numen II" among the best and "Numen III" less satisfying for having been almost wholly obscured by the calligraphy. Overall, however, this is work of great presence, with seemingly endless possibilities. The show is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Saturday.