For the past 20 years, while many sought their identities among the picket lines and slogans of a changing America, Mildred Thompson was in exile, seeking hers in art.

It was a strange sort of odyssey, she recalls, leading from her hometown, Jacksonville, Fla., to the garrets and galleries of Europe and back. A driven painter, she finally found her cultural niche inside herself.

"I was sort of running away, I suppose . . ." she said. "But now I know that I can be an artist and be respected and can support myself without feeling I'm in the wrong place at the wrong time."

This summer, Thompson led a community mural painting project in Glen Echo Park, "helping to make America more aware of its culture" and of its black artists, as part of the once-segregated amusement park's Multicultural Washington program.

"We were giving kids, and adults, the chance to get out and work with colors and paints . . . to help them learn an appreciation for art and all its beauties by doing," she said.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the faded, old amusement park was alive once more. Children rode the wooden horses and tigers on the carousel, bobbing rhythmically as a Sousa march boomed and tinkled on the calliope. Potters and weavers demonstrated their crafts, and dancers scurried to the Spanish Ballroom for a last-minute rehearsal.

Thompson, her salt-and-pepper Afro specked with blue paint, was creating art by the entrance, chalking the outline of the summer's seventh mural on a brick wall.

Her proteges gathered around, reaching for a brush or a cup of yellow paint to color the stars. Thompson said she felt at home.

"It's marvelous. I need to be forced out of my books and my studio . . . . I need contact with normal people."

As she spoke, 7-year-old Rina King tugged at her sleeve, asking for advice. "Do you want me to paint the rainbow?" he asked.

"It's all yours, baby," Thompson said, drawing in a quick outline that he could fill in with red paint.

She looked happy and at home in her ele- ment. But the happiness, she said, had been a long time coming.

After graduating form Howard University in 1957, she applied for a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Europe. But, "it was a time when no one really thought much of sending a black girl overseas to study art," she said. The scholarship never came through.

She got a job, and began saving for the price of passage to Europe. Landing in Hamburg, Germany, in 1958, Thompson was welcomed to the European art scene. She became a member of the Hamburg Art Academy, and scholarship money began coming in.

"I was treated as sort of a mascot," she said. "I spoke no German. Here I was, this little black girl in Hamburg. I thought I was really there. I was established, I could paint. The Germans not only made me confident, they made me cocky."

Thinking she was ready to "make it on the New York circuit," Thompson returned to the United States in 1961. Though she sold two etchings to the Museum of Modern Art and two more to the Brooklyn Museum, she found herself unable to break into commercial galleries.

One art dealer, she said, "after looking at my prints over and over again, suggested that I go to Hallmark. She was sure they would hire me to do Christmas cards. . . .Another gallery owner suggested that it would be better if I had a white friend to take my work around, someone to pass as Mildred Thompson.

"I had a studio on the lower East Side. We were all down there, all the struggling young artists. There were drugs . . . we were starving, and my friends were committing suicide.

"There was Martin Luther King and Malcom X and James Baldwin, and the sides were dividing. People were getting stepped on, and it was getting bad. There were no grants for us. I decided there was no need to scrounge and suffer. I bought a ticket and went back to Germany where people would let me be a painter."

This time Thompson settled in Duren, a small town near Cologne, a hub of the European avant-grade art scene. She found a part-time teaching job and once again began to show and sell regularly. She considered giving up her American citizenship.

"People in Germany are so in tune with art," she said. "They grow up going to museums, and 12-year-old kids put prints on their Christmas lists. To them, I was an artist. It didn't matter what color I was."

Thompson lived in Duren for 10 years, painting and sculpting among the sheep and farmers in the lush German countryside. But, she said, "things began to change in America.

"Suddenly, people were coming to talk to me and other artists-in-exile and they were giving out grants. . . .I realized I didn't know America anymore."

Accepting a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Thompson moved to Tampa, Fla., in 1974 to become the city's artist-in-residence.

Once there, she found the ferment of the '60s and early '70s hadn't yet reached Tampa.

"But it was possibly the best place for me to be sent to be readjusted. Ten years ago it would have hurt or broken me, but I just learned I needed to readjust."

Her grant was not renewed, so when she was offered a position as artist-in-residence at Howard University in 1978, she was eager to see how the school had changed.

Once there, she was in for a culture shock of a different kind. "They said I wasn't black enough."

While her contemporaries were painting portraits of "the African experience," Thompson frequently returned to her European experience, following themes rooted in Grimms' fairy tales and European folklore.

"I had studied Grimms' academically for years, trying to learn about my attachment for them. . . .I had never dealt much with African culture."

She left Howard after a year and applied for the Glen Echo grant.

She has just finished putting fish and flowers and new life on the walls of the aging park. She said she has caught up with the things she missed and understands, though she still has her own opinions about art and its function.

"With art, there are symbolic things that have to be learned to make a work universal. . .You can't limit who you communicate with. If you do, things are never going to change, your work will never have an impact.

". . .but (first) you have to know yourself. Everything I touch will be part black and female -- all my success and the things I have gotten is part of that. You have to be aware, know who the hell you are. Once there, you can relate to others.

"It's like this mural painting. We are teaching young people, both black and white, about art, and through that, about who they are. That is the way things change."

She has her studio in Northeast Washington. Her experiences there are rich, and her appreciation of the environment strong. She tells of the old black man who worked in the building for years when it housed a laundry, and recently came by to see what the artist was doing.

As he passed the bathroom, she said, he stopped in thought a moment, then told her it had been the building's "white only" bathroom.

America's past is far behind her during the Glen Echo project. She is part of the moment, free and creative. Extending a brush, her only concern is, "Do you want to paint some stars?"