FORGET about good defeating evil. There's a new truism to associate with fairy tales: Different people see things differently.
That may not be what he intended, but that's the message conveyed by local sculptor Phillip Ratner's creatively constructed statues of 30 characters from children's classics like "Cinderella," "The Wizard of Oz," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
"Basically I'm having fun. I'm a non-serious artist. If I'm trying to teach a great moral lesson, I'm doing something wrong," said Ratner, whose colorful interpretations of fairy tale characters are exhibited in the Gallery for Children's Literature in Art at Bethesda's Dennis & Phillip Ratner Museum.
Ratner says artistic expression is the sole motivation for the exhibit, which was born from a joint venture between himself and the Capital Children's Museum 10 years ago.
The works, which showcase Ratner's off-kilter sensibility, include Snow White as Carol Channing and the seven dwarfs as Albert Einstein, W.C. Fields, Louie Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx and Laurel and Hardy, along with a lavender-skinned Little Red Riding Hood, Oz's Scarecrow wielding a diploma and sporting a graduation cap and a purple-haired Little Bo Peep toting a picture of a sheep under the word "lost."
For the last decade, the approximately three-foot-high figures have been on exhibit in different museums. They found a permanent home three years ago when the artist and his cousin, Dennis, opened their 7,000-square-foot museum. Dennis Ratner, founder and owner of the Hair Cuttery salon chain, donated more than $2 million to the nonprofit museum, whose main purpose is to exhibit sculptures, paintings and tapestries representing the stories and lessons embodied in the texts of the Hebrew Bible.
Phillip Ratner, 65, is a District native whose works are on display all over the world in places such as U.S. Supreme Court, the National Zoo (the panda sculpture), University Town Center in Hyattsville and Ellis Island.
Because of the popularity of Ratner's fairy tale characters, he plans to add American folk heroes such as Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan to the mix and expand the works' exhibit space, perhaps by moving the secular figures from the barn that houses the children's gallery to the adjacent main museum.
For now, the literary characters are viewable only from the front, sitting side-by-side on pedestals against the wall. Activity work sheets are posted underneath each of the figures, which are made from skeletons of melded steel and painted in vibrant acrylic hues.
Coloring tools and a workstation in the adjoining room make it possible for museum-goers to complete short coloring projects that ask them to do things such as dress up the emperor who lost his clothes, put the genie back into Aladdin's lamp and finish drawing both Alice's Cheshire cat and Prince Charming's horse.
If they desire, children of all ages who complete activity work sheets and other artwork can leave their pieces to be hung on the wall or even sent to Safad, Israel, to be displayed at the Ratner cousins' Israel Bible Museum, which they built in 1984.
Another children's literature exhibit lines the perimeter of the art project room, although kids wouldn't recognize the characters since they come straight out of Ratner's unpublished book, "Adam Bright and the New Zoo."
The original work -- with intricate illustrations accompanying rhyming text about a young boy designated by the Creator to save the environment by making entirely new creatures -- sits at the beginning of the display.
After they look at the 14 characters laid out underneath framed reproduced pages of "Adam Bright and the New Zoo," children are challenged to make up their own ecologically friendly zoo animal. The sculpted members of the New Zoo include garbage-eaters, water-cleaners and litter-picker-uppers with names like Gorgal, Flipit, Wata-Filas and Garbag-ello.
The exhibits and their accompanying projects are designed for anyone age 4 and up, and visitors are welcome to touch the eye-catching, expressive sculptures, because, Ratner says, "Art is not sacred. We've made art into this idol. If something happens, I'll fix it."
On a recent Sunday, fourth- and fifth-graders from Beth Shalom Synagogue in Bethesda wandered through the gallery rooms, shouting "cool" over and over again as they looked at the different characters. A few parents chuckled as they lingered around Ratner's rendition of the Seven Dwarfs, and children bolted from Cinderella to the Tin Man to the Wicked Witch laughing at the expressions on the characters' multicolored faces.
One of those parents, David Halpert of Rockville, whose 11-year-old son, Jaime, was entranced by the Wizard of Oz corner where Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man cavort atop their pedestals, was surprised to hear Ratner does not sell his sculptures.
"These are just amazing. I can see celebrities, even other people, wanting to have these statues in their house," Halpert said.
No matter how appealing to the consumer his fun and expressive statues may be, Ratner has no commercial aims. His attempt at creating visually stimulating fairy tale-esque statues really just boils down to art.
DENNIS & PHILLIP RATNER MUSEUM -- 10001 Old Georgetown Road, Bethesda. 301-897-1518. www.ratnermuseum.com. Open from 10 to 4:30. Sundays and on weekdays by appointment. Admission is free. Kids can do one project free of charge and purchase packets of coloring work sheet projects for $5 each.