A few times each week, Gwen Anderson descends the steps to her Burke Centre basement studio, in Northern Virginia. There she ties a handkerchief over her nose and mouth and starts the lengthy, complicated process of enameling. Across the river in Maryland, her friends and colleagues Pat Peat O'Neil and Ute Conrad have similar schedules, braving the dangerous acids and high heat that the crushed-glass art form requires. These conditions don't bother the artists even though Anderson is 87, O'Neil is nearly 82 and Conrad, the youngest, is 60.

To create basic enamel art, enamelists cover a metal surface with a liquid adherent and sift powdered colored glass over it, then repeatedly fire the work in a burning-hot kiln. Anderson, O'Neil and Conrad are currently exhibiting in "Enamel: The Versatile Medium," at the Glen Echo Gallery. The exhibit consists of more than 60 items, including paintings and decorative dishes.

Each artist has a distinctive style. O'Neil's abstract works bubble with color. Anderson's expertise lies in black-and-white enameling, a process called grisaille. Her eerie but compelling "Night Sight" depicts the eye of a storm--literally. Conrad's most recent works on display are a series of small squares filled with abstract designs inspired, she says, by natural objects she looks at under a microscope.

Anderson and O'Neil met about 50 years ago, when O'Neil walked into Anderson's Georgetown gallery, the now defunct Artist's Mart. They quickly built a friendship out of a love of enameling and adventure. "Pat and I are both a little bit crazy but in a fun way," says Anderson. "Pat is like I am: She likes challenges and doesn't mind danger."

Conrad entered their lives about 10 years ago, when she joined the Enamelist Gallery at the Torpedo Factory, where O'Neil and Anderson were founding members. "The gallery is very important for enameling," says Conrad, now the exhibitions director. "It's one of the few in the United States that only shows this kind of craft."

Anderson and O'Neil claim partial responsibility for raising enameling's profile in Washington. Anderson founded the National Enamelist Guild here in 1973 (O'Neil was vice president) and then helped form two more guilds in Florida, where she spends half the year. Now branches exist throughout the country. The guilds sponsor workshops and hold a biannual meeting. O'Neil hopes these activities, as well as art exhibits, counterbalance the stereotype of enamelists as people who only make earrings and trinkets to sell at craft fairs.

Both O'Neil and Anderson studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Anderson has exhibited watercolors at the Corcoran Gallery. O'Neil also has a master's degree in fine arts from Catholic University.

Conrad trained as a graphic designer in her native Germany before turning to enameling. "The colors in enamel are different and much more intense and shiny and outspoken," says Conrad. "You can't really get the same effect when you paint or draw or do watercolors."

Not many enameling classes were offered in Washington when O'Neil and Anderson moved to the area in the 1940s. They set about spreading enameling know-how by teaching at dozens of locations, including Glen Echo. Altogether, Anderson, O'Neil and Conrad have more than 100 years of enamel instruction to their credit. This fall, O'Neil, the only one of the three now teaching, will lead a Saturday morning class at the Guy Mason Recreation Center in upper Georgetown, where she has taught for 43 years.

Recently there have been signs that interest in enameling is dwindling. Gallery membership has ebbed to 14, from a starting number of more than 20. "The younger generation is not that interested in a craft that is very time-consuming and needs a lot of training," says Conrad. Still, the artists tend to be businesslike about their creations, and sales in the gallery remain strong, especially of small works.

In Anderson's house the dining room table overflows with half-finished artworks, but only one complete piece adorns a wall. "I'd rather sell my enamels and travel," says Anderson with a laugh.

Anderson won't be working in her basement throughout the winter. She plans to spend New Year's Eve on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.

"Enamel: The Versatile Medium" is at Glen Echo Gallery, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, through Sept. 26. For information, call 301-492-6229.

ARTS BITS

Tomorrow night Jungian analyst Kathrin Asper will give a lecture titled "Frida Kahlo: The Expression of Suffering in Her Art." The talk is sponsored by the Mexican Cultural Institute and the Washington Society for Jungian Psychology. The event is at 6:30 p.m. at the Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. Admission is $10; a reception follows the talk . . . Last month, the East of the River Boys and Girls Steelband took part in the fifth annual United States-Trinidad and Tobago International Youth Cultural Exchange in Trinidad and Tobago. They will perform here on Sept. 25 for the National Park Service's second annual Community Day and on Oct. 9 as part of the Taste of D.C. festival.

CAPTION: Pat Peat O'Neil holds #11 of her Rudolph Steiner series displayed at the Glen Echo Gallery.

CAPTION: Enamelist Uta Conrad with her "Life in a Pond" at the Glen Echo Gallery.