"I'm working probably with one-quarter of my brain right now," said Patricia Forrester, who appeared distracted by the crowd that had gathered around her as she painted a watercolor of irises in a vase. Forrester was among the many artists assembled at the French Embassy Saturday night who were creating on-site works that were offered in open silent bidding.

The proceeds from the artists' efforts were to benefit the Children's Studio School, a Mount Pleasant institution emphasizing the development of cognitive skills through the arts for children ages 2 to 7.

"It's not usually so amusing to be working," Forrester said. She remained good-natured, however, noting "everyone is willing to be forgiving" if the results were not as impressive as those produced under less hectic circumstances.

Across the room artist Michael Clark was drawing a pencil portrait of a woman. "She's been really talkative, so I'm having to use my imagination," said Clark, who in explaining his participation in the benefit added, "I just wish I got the start these kids are getting."

Leon Berkowitz attracted a large crowd as he stood drawing abstract, multicolored chalk portraits of whoever would pay the $100 that the much-respected Berkowitz in turn donated to the school. "Okay. Next, next, next," he said, managing to complete eight portraits in little more than an hour.

Other artists participating in the sw,-1 on-site creating included Willem de Looper, Joan Danziger, Joe Shannon and Ben Summerford.

Unlike your usual black-tie and banquet fundraiser, this benefit included an art auction, with 45 artists, including Kenneth Noland, Kevin McDonald and Yuriko Yamaguchi, either donating their work outright or splitting the selling price with the school.

Marcia McDonell, founder and director of the Children's Studio School, explained the addition of the auction to the second annual benefit this way: "We had a lot of fun last year, but we didn't make any money. This year we wanted to have some fun and make some money."

That the 500 on hand at the benefit party, which was hosted by, among others, Florence Davis, widow of painter Gene Davis, and Olga Hirshhorn, had fun there can be no doubt. What is less certain is whether the school raised as much money as McDonell had hoped for.

"When people go to an auction the idea is to get something for less than its value," McDonell said. "Here, we're trying to encourage people to believe that they should spend more than the value."

Such was not to be the case, however, as a program of 50 lots, whose combined value according to the evening's program was estimated at about $127,000, brought in $28,000. Auctioneer Christopher Berge, president of Christie's, was forced to pass on about 13 works when minimum bids of 60 percent of the pieces' value could not be solicited, according to McDonell. Several times throughout the auction a gigantic, dancing "money-minder" -- replete with a large red dollarsign on its head, a la "Let's Make a Deal" -- appeared on stage to coax higher bids from the crowd. But the provocateur got more laughs than bids.

"Everybody here thinks they're supporting the arts," said master of ceremonies and art critic Frank Getlein. "But what is really happening is that the artists are supporting the arts by contributing their work. And it's a shame."

As the theme of the evening was "In the Spirit of Matisse," some of the partygoers came in costume. One Matisse-like costume wasn't a costume at all, but rather a live buxom papier ma che' doll that featured a pink dress with blue flowers and red balloon lips.

At times the two- and three-dimensional works by student artists that was on exhibit upstaged the work of their adult counterparts. One woman was astonished to learn that the mixed-media watercolor and fabric on paper that she particularly liked was the creation of a 3-year-old named Sayara. "I thought it was one of the French Embassy's paintings," the woman said.

sk,2 "What I want to know is can we bid on the kids' stuff?" asked Peggy Ritzenberg as she admired a display of paintings and drawings by Luke, who is 5. The pictures had names like "Person Fighting a Dragon" and "Worm on its Way Home." "You see Sam's influence," she said upon closer inspection.

Sam was Sam Gilliam, who for years has supported the Children's Studio School and who had donated two of his art works to be auctioned off for the benefit.

"You learn to play and you learn to be serious," Gilliam said of the conventional education process. "If you learn to expand a talent, then it's easier to fill [that talent] later with more serious things."