ROCK CREEK PARK and the Art Barn: The combination inspires all sorts of artistic attempts.

The other day, two young women stood with brushes poised before easels and regarded the water cascading over the dam there. Where trees drop their golden leaves into the water as if tossing coins into a fountain, a pair of mallards was pulling away from the flock and drifting downstream. But little on the painters' canvases reflected the idyllic scene: One was a map of angular lines; the other, a sea of Day-Glo phosphorescence.

Near where they were standing, a sculpture show nestles in the grass -- a cluster of seven all-natural pieces.

In the beginning of summer, wood in huge sections was carted to this place that celebrates a stream, and the wood was worked on till a few weeks ago when the sculptures were pronounced finished. They now dot the lawn near Peirce Mill and the Art Barn.

Formerly a stable, the Art Barn houses local artists' work, and the occasional family of birds. Empty nests are wedged between window and closed shutters upstairs, where earlier this year chirping baby birds importuned every visitor's shadow.

Outside, one of the sculptures, called "Hi Fi," depicts a family group: the father, naked, tall and green, face against the sky; two children, brown and red, perching balletically on his shoulders; his naked yellow wife by his side tittering behind a blanket. The entire monolith has been carved from a single piece of wood about 10 feet tall.

In all, sculptor Stefan Saal spent 28 days alongside Rock Creek, helping prepare the wood for the other sculptures and creating this one. Standing for races together, it replicates his own family, his wife being Japanese.

Working in a park means public exposure. But the only negative comments Saal says he received had to do with the fact that he painted his piece.

"It needed it," he says. It added to the "diversification," he says. But everyone else seemed to like his work au naturel.

Passers-by were not the usual gallery crowd, but families out for picnics, couples, office workers on bikes who'd fly by on the path and call out "Nice work! I like it!" and jobless men.

"There are a lot of unemployed men in their 30s who come to this park and talk about their dreams," says Saal, 31. "One dreamed about owning race horses." Then there was the girl "with a tattoo on her shoulder who was looking for her throwing knife that she'd lost the night before. There was a bum here who was speaking Latin to himself."

But when looking at the sculpture, he says, they started to reflect on it, one and all. Art, the great equalizer.

Other sculptures include Genevieve Hubert's "Metamorphosis," a broken infinity sign that in its smooth curves looks like a sea-carved anchor. "This is a piece of sculpture," reads the words on a sign nearby. "Please do not sit on it!"

Over by a picnic table, one sculpture is an arch that fits in very well. And, near a neglected herb garden, a scattering of scored logs forms a Stonehenge of sorts. On the rise at the edge of the woods, a lowly effort appears to be either a diving board or a duckbill platypus.

But the point of the show, sponsored by the Washington Sculptors Group, wasn't great art.

"As an artist," says Saal, "this really wasn't an art experience for me. People didn't realize it, but I was watching them as much as they were watching me."

WOOD SCULPTURE -- At the Art Barn through November 30; 2401 Tilden Street NW. This Sunday, for Rock Creek Foliage Day, 10 artists will be demonstrating various media from 10 to 5. The Art Barn also offers free art workshops on Saturdays, 10 to noon for children and noon to 2 for adults. Reservations are neede for children's workshops. And every Sunday, artists currently exhibiting in the Art Barn give demonstrations from 1 to 3. 426-6719.