The firebird, the mythical beast of Indian legend that rose phoenix-like from the ashes, seems an appropriate metaphor for the artistic vision of convicts in the nation's prisons. "Inside Out: Photographs From Lorton," 90 pictures taken by 17 inmates in the Lorton Photography Workshop, opened Jan. 17 at the nonprofit Firebird Gallery, 814 N. St. Asaph St., Alexandria. Washington photographer Roland L. Freeman curated the show, and program founder and photographer Karen L. Ruckman directs the workshop -- a five-year-old program that functions as both a rehabilitative mechanism and an artistic outlet for Lorton inmates. Equipment and supplies are purchased through grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Inmates built the program darkroom in a prison closet. Ruckman says it is the only prison photography program in the nation; it has found a welcome, if temporary, niche at Firebird, which specializes in artists with institutional experience -- prisons, mental institutions, nursing homes -- and artists who have mental or physical disabilities. The show runs through Feb. 22. New AFI Awards Presentation

Reaching out to recognize the unrecognized, the American Film Institute will present a new award to three deserving film and video artists Thursday in New York City. The AFI announced creation of the award -- called the American Film Institute Award for Independent Film and Video Artists -- earlier this month. It is given in honor of the late filmmaker Maya Deren, though her name is not in the official title. The 1986 awardees, animator Sally Cruikshank, filmmaker Stan Brakhage and video artist Nam June Paik, will each receive $5,000.

The award will go primarily to artists "at mid- and senior level . . . especially seniors who may not have been recognized because they have been independent, out of the mainstream," said Patty Prendergast of the AFI Washington office. Prendergast said that a committee composed of AFI trustees will compile a list of candidates each year, and the board will then vote on who will receive the $5,000 prize. Much like the AFI's Life Achievement Award and the famous MacArthur "genius" grants, candidates will never know whether they have been nominated unless they win. Between 30 and 50 people were nominated for the 1986 award.

The awards will be presented at the Tower Gallery in New York City. Hesperus' Pardessus Benefit

Hesperus, the early-music ensemble-in-residence at Georgetown University, is throwing a benefit concert and champagne reception Feb. 13 for an unlikely, but deserving, cause -- the group's newly acquired $12,000 Guersan pardessus de viole.Though held like a cello, its sound is similar to that of the violin.

"It's a strange instrument used for only 100 years in France, in the 18th century," said Tina Chancey, Hesperus' pardessus player. Chancey said that when Italian violin music became popular in Europe, the French grew to love the music, but dislike the instrument. So the French created a new instrument -- the pardessus de viole. But then the pardessus fell out of favor. "The French bowed to the inevitable. The violin was more dramatic, it carried better in larger concert halls."

Chancey first heard of the instrument from a music dealer acquaintance who said he had come into possession of a pardessus in "original condition." When they rendezvoused at the Boston Early Music Festival, Chancey played the instrument for one hour every day for about a week. "At first, it sounded like cardboard, because it hadn't been played in 200 years," she said. Gradually, after the instrument began to sound better, the dealer realized that Chancey wanted to play the instrument and "not just hang it on my wall."

Tickets to the benefit are $15 and can be obtained by calling 333-4529, or by writing Hesperus, 1690 36th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. Portrait of Mathew Brady

If you ever wanted to know what famous Civil War-era photographer Mathew Brady looked like, you're about to get your wish. The National Portrait Gallery has acquired from an estate auction a daguerreotype portrait of Brady, his wife and a woman thought to be Brady's sister. It is the only daguerreotype likeness of Brady extant today, said William Stapp, curator of photographs at the gallery. Children's Studio Fundraiser

About 45 Washington artists will be on hand at a benefit dinner and auction for the Children's Studio School Saturday at the French Embassy. Among the artists, Christopher Gardner, Rockne Krebs and Kevin McDonald will help raise funds for the school by creating portraits and nonrepresentational works at the dinner. Portraits created that night will be sold for a fixed price; other nonrepresentational works created at the embassy will be sold at a silent auction. And to top it off, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry has proclaimed Saturday "Children's Studio School Day." Reservations for the $50-per-person affair can be made by calling 333-1849.