AS THE American Visionary Art Museum gears up for a major planned expansion, the idiosyncratic Baltimore institution has mounted three lively exhibitions -- one on each floor of its handsome Federal Hill home -- that not only highlight the museum's aesthetic roots but call attention to its hopes for the future.

In "Baltimore Glassman: Fresh Air Cure" and "Holy Fire: The Matchstick Artistry of Gerald Hawkes," AVAM's first one-person shows in its four-year history, the museum has chosen to highlight the art of two of its earliest and most wonderful finds: living legend Paul Darmafall, whose child-like glass and glitter collages have earned him his simple and descriptive nickname, and the Baltimore-born matchstick sculptor Gerald Hawkes, who died of AIDS last year and whose ashes were sprinkled in the museum's USF&G Wildflower Garden.

Hawkes and his elegant but intricate compositions made of thousands (and in some cases more than a million) kitchen matches, Elmer's glue and polyurethane were discovered by AVAM founder and director Rebecca Hoffberger within months of her original idea to start the museum. The artist subsequently accompanied Hoffberger on numerous lobbying visits to the Maryland state legislature, and he was the first person to cross the threshold of the facility when it opened its doors in November 1995.

If Darmafall and Hawkes represent the young museum's short history and its ties to the local community, the photo show "Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments" calls attention to what might lie ahead. AVAM is in the midst of fund-raising and negotiation with the city to acquire and renovate an abandoned whiskey barrel warehouse just south of its Tall Sculpture Barn. The proposed building would not only double the museum's geographic "footprint" next to the harbor, but would house a center for hands-on art-making, a think tank/conference center on the upper floor and a so-called "Visionary Village," a cavernous space that could preserve six to 10 complete folk-art environments that otherwise might be destroyed.

The often fragile and underappreciated real-world art spaces are what is being memorialized in the 60 pictures of "Self-Made Worlds" by photographers Ted Degener, Marcus Schubert, Roger Manley and others: such famous and not so famous ephemeral spaces such as the Rev. Howard Finster's Paradise Garden and Plant Farm Museum in Pennville, Ga.; Vollis Simpson's Lucama, N.C., Whirligig Park; and the Faith Mission of Anderson Johnson, many of whose religious-themed wall paintings were destroyed when his Newport News, Va., home was torn down by the city in 1995.

Until Hoffberger's "Visionary Village" dream is realized, marvelous photographs like these (which have been collected in a companion book published by Aperture) may be the only way to preserve wonders like Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project, a strip of abandoned houses on an inner city Detroit street that the artist has festooned with found objects, shoes and paint. The city has already dismantled much of the project after complaints from some neighbors who saw only junk. Although grass-roots organizations sometimes spring up to save this endangered species of artistic wildlife, all too often these bizarrely beautiful and fragile places fall victim to the wrecking ball. In addition to the sense of sheer joy they capture, these photographs are a reminder that no warehouse will ever be big enough to save all these threatened treasures.

Upstairs, most of the second floor has been taken over by hundreds of Paul Darmafall's signature mosaic signboards, which are displayed salon-style in an unlabeled knee-to-ceiling arrangement that exhibit co-curator Hoffberger likens to a "jewel box." The effect actually more closely resembles a giant box of rock candy. Unlike the National Museum of Natural History's gleaming Gem Hall, these walls dazzle with the dusty, polychrome radiance of crystallized sugar.

The exhibit's title comes from a recurring motif in Darmafall's peculiar philosophy, which holds that electricity, door locks and taxes are evil and that manual labor and fresh air are a panacea for a world of ills. His densely ornamented pictures of baseball players, angels, Mr. Peanut and patriotic icons -- glued in highly reflective chunks of plastic, glass and tinsel on scraps of wood, cardboard and plastic -- bear such repeated messages as "Nature Boy," "Horse Sense" and "Non Electric," along with biblical citations and Darmafall's almost ubiquitous mantra "I Stand to Be Corrected."

Song titles such as "Roll Out the Barrel" and "Hey Look Me Over" pop up over and over again, too, but there is no need for musical accompaniment here. This is art that sings by itself.

One quiet gallery on the third floor has been devoted to the exquisitely obsessive match constructions of Gerald Hawkes, whose meditative frenzy really needs to be seen close up to be appreciated. Working with ordinary wooden household matches, whose tips the artist would either burn off or remove by tossing large quantities of them tied in a pillow case into a washing machine, Hawkes made utilitarian objects like a table, chair and backgammon set, evocative portrait busts, and richly symbolic wall pieces rife with mathematical patterns and private spiritual references.

The letter H, for example occurs with great frequency. For Hawkes, it represented a multitude of things: heaven, hell, his own last name, the Holy Bible, heroin (an addiction he battled after being injured in a brutal mugging in 1984) and HIV.

The subtly dyed matches, tinted with berries, coffee and other organic materials, form elaborate patterns that mimic wood grain, but without the randomness of nature. There is whimsy aplenty (in match sculptures made out of an electric shaver and a camera), as well as a celebration of pure beauty.

But there is also an abiding sadness in much of Hawkes's work. In "Physical and Emotional Abuse," a self-portrait that was Hawkes's last completed head, the artist applied his trademark matches around a burnt mannequin head rescued from a fire that had killed several young children. Unlike his other heads, in which smoothly shellacked matches form the "skin" of the subject, the charred, blistering texture of this striking piece -- resembling raw third-degree burns -- stands for the artist's own face and contributes to the impression of deep internal and external pain.

"Most people think of art," says Hoffberger, "as the person who sat next to them in school who made really good horse heads."

That's never been the impression of the American Visionary Art Museum, which celebrates the kind of art often made out of trash, some Home Depot hardware and a little bit of hope. That mission (for it really is a calling rather than a job) has never been so well expressed as in these three shows.

SELF-MADE WORLDS: VISIONARY FOLK ART ENVIRONMENTS -- Through Sept. 5.

BALTIMORE GLASSMAN: FRESH AIR CURE -- Through Sept. 5.

HOLY FIRE: THE MATCHSTICK ARTISTRY OF GERALD HAWKES -- Through Jan. 9, 2000.

All at the American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Hwy., Baltimore. 410/244-1900. Web site: www.avam.org. Open 10 to 6 Tuesdays through Sundays. $6; children, seniors and students $4; groups of 10 or more $3 per person.

A five-minute video accompanies the "Baltimore Glassman" exhibit.

CAPTION: "Shangri-La delicious" by Henry Warren and Junius Pennix consists of 27 miniature buildings and sits in Warren's yard in North Carolina.

CAPTION: Gerald Hawkes's "Becky, Woman of the Year" (1988): matches, glue and polyurethane.