Maybe it was the petrified chicken claws curling around the wire, branches and leaves that confused them.

"People ask 'What does it mean?' a lot," artist Lynne Menturweck said Saturday. "One man came in and said, 'This is not my cup of tea,' and left."

Menturweck was putting her work and her workplace on display for the Washington Project for the Arts' fifth annual Open Studio. More than 200 local artists will have opened their studios to the public by the time the two-weekend event ends. Downtown studios were open Saturday, uptown on Sunday. Maryland and Virginia artists will open theirs next weekend.

"It provides an opportunity for exposure for us, and to let the community see what's happening," said painter Wendy Kaye. "It's also nice because a lot of the people who can't get a show, for whatever reason, get a chance to be seen. And it's a stroke, a boost, to have people see your work, talk about it. You're locked up in your studio all year--it's real introverted--and now it's time to come out."

Kaye's studio is in the Atlas Building at 527 Ninth St. NW. The crumbling former office building, which can hardly be called converted, sits between two stores advertising "New! Private Viewing Booths!" Throughout the afternoon, women in suede jackets and comfortable-looking men stopped outside the building, glanced somewhat nervously at their WPA maps, and gently pulled the open the doors of 527.

They walked through the building, and the others like it around downtown Washington, with hesitant looks on their faces: quiet, stepping carefully, like self-conscious intruders in someone's home. But these were homes where the corners of the cramped rooms were filled with stretched canvases and plaster wafted down onto the paint-spattered floors.

"In other cities you get big, old industrial buildings for studios," one painter said in her small studio. "Here you can't find a place to live and work in because Washington doesn't have the industrial base that New York or Boston did. So you end up somewhere like this rabbit warren."

There was a lot of talk about space and heat--about how it comes, as one artist put it, as a "Christmas present." There's not enough. And a Washington artistic community? There's not enough of that, either.

"You know, you go to a gallery here, and you could very well be the only one there," said Christopher Whittingham, who was visiting an artist in the building. "In Philadelphia or Boston, they'd be full."

And the prospects for sales in Washington aren't that good either, according to painter James Sundquist, whose studio is on F Street.

"People will not buy art here. If they're going to spend over $1,000, they have a tendency to buy strictly blue-chip, or to buy in New York. You reach a point in your career where you hit $1,000 and your market begins to dry up. It's as if people are scared, or timid somehow. It's easier for them to buy something that has a name."

So the Open Studio weekends aims to help the timid, to remind both potential buyers and the merely curious that artists do live and work in Washington. Sundquist sold a few pieces Saturday, and other artists said dealers and gallery owners had wandered through and discussed their work with them.

"It gets people accustomed to coming down to this neighborhood to see the energy," Sundquist said. "Everybody's got a place in their heart for art, no matter how small it is. It's not the gallery scene here, it's not that heavy. And seeing the artists in their studios--that's got a real romantic attraction for people."

But for at least one of the artists, what others find romantic she finds frightening.

"Personally, I didn't like it," sculptor Yuriko Yamaguchi said, remembering last year's Open Studio weekend. "I felt very embarrassed. It's a personal room, not a gallery. But I think it's very important to serve the public, and that's what this is."

Two women walked into Yamaguchi's studio and silently surveyed the small black objects covering the walls. Yamaguchi smiled at the guests and offered them some wine or Sprite. Everyone was very polite, and a little nervous.

"One of the buyers of my work said they came here last year to Open Studio and they found my work," Yamaguchi said, "so the Open Studio is very important for artists, too."

And as Menturweck said, "It's very amusing to watch people watching you. Some people walk over and look at the shelves. They stare at everything. I feel like I should put a sign around my neck--'The Artist.' "

For information about next weekend's Open Studio, call WPA at 347-8304.