ONLY THE NAME suggests that the Very Special Arts Gallery is different from any other commercial gallery in downtown Washington. The works on sale range from outstanding to ordinary; the obstacles some of the artists have overcome range from difficult to seemingly impossible.
The F Street gallery, run by the Kennedy Center, is an innovative attempt to open the commercial mainstream to professional artists with disabilities. Blind sculptors, paralyzed photographers, retarded painters and others are represented in the opening show, selected from applicants from all 50 states.
It's the antithesis of a sheltered workshop. The works were selected by co-director Denise R. Warner without regard for anything but the quality and variety of art she sought and -- this time only -- the artists' home states. There's no heartstring-plinking or do-gooder condescension here; unless a particular artist's disability is relevant, which it usually isn't, it is not mentioned in the catalogue's brief biographies. A visitor soon stops wondering about the personal circumstances of the artists while thinking about the works themselves.
Which is exactly the purpose. During the coming year the gallery will begin including works by nonhandicapped artists, Warner says. The prices are also mainstream: The offerings embrace William C. Renc's witty "We Don't Want Any" (1990), an intaglio and watercolor rendering of a cold fish answering the door, priced at $480, and "Meditation" (1990), a striking life-size oil of a Buddhist monk by Jerome Dalton Jr., priced at $7,500.
Gerald Hawkes of Baltimore, who sculpts mainly with matchsticks (yes), is represented by a "George Bush Lamp" symbolizing a thousand points of light. It's odd, ingenious, engaging, durable and functional, and can be had for $720.
William Britt, who makes his living silkscreening road signs in New York's Westchester County, makes his upbeat artistic statements in acrylics that are strongly reminiscent of Grandma Moses and perhaps even more colorful. "A Winter Scene" (1990) of oxen sledging firewood home, is priced at $2,400.
The nonprofit gallery charges artists standard commissions, with receipts put back into the operation. The gallery hopes eventually to become entirely self-supporting and ultimately to put itself out of business by breaking down the barriers "special" artists now face. It's a promising beginning.
ART ACROSS AMERICA -- Through February at the Very Special Arts Gallery, 1331 F St. NW. 202/628-0800. Open 10 to 6 Monday through Friday, 10 to 8 Thursdays and 10 to 4 Saturdays. Metro: Metro Center. Excellent wheelchair access.