The work of a 35-year-old abstract artist who learned to paint with oil sticks at a day program for mentally retarded adults in Mount Pleasant is on display in a new one-of-a-kind gallery on F Street NW.

An untitled, multicolored study in stripes by Gary Oliver of Brookland is part of an exhibit of 51 works by artists with disabilities from around the country. The works constitute the inaugural show of the Very Special Arts Gallery that opened Monday at 1331 F St. NW.

The gallery was established by Very Special Arts, an educational affiliate of the Kennedy Center, to showcase work by artists with physical or mental disabilities. Their work is displayed alongside work by artists without disabilities.

Organizers say it is the first gallery of this kind in the nation, and, appropriately, the selected work of one artist from every state makes up the first show.

Karen Carson, a co-director of the gallery, said it is often difficult to find a gallery willing to take work by unknown artists with disabilities, and that the Very Special Arts group sees the

F Street gallery as an opportunity to educate the public about the work produced by many talented people who are mentally or physically disabled.

Denise Warner, a co-director of the gallery, said Oliver's work came to her attention after she approached his day program looking for artwork to display in a show in Hyannis Port, Mass., for the 100th birthday of Rose Kennedy last summer.

Oliver has also had his work displayed at the Wallace Wentworth Gallery, the Willow Street Art Gallery and at the Sumner School Museum and Archives, among others.

He was first runner-up last year in the National Rehabilitation Hospital's annual talent search, and has sold pieces for up to $750.

"Gary's talent is in his genes," said his father, Garfield Oliver, a retired postal worker. He said both his wife, who teaches preschool, and her oldest brother sketch and paint.

Oliver has been enrolled at Life Skills Center Inc. on Mount Pleasant Street NW since 1975, according to Director Margaret Hoven. Hoven said she founded the center in 1974 to teach basic life skills and recreational activities to mentally retarded adults.

"At that time, there was nothing in the city for adults with mental retardation," she said. "For so many years people did not want to deal with {them}. They just wanted to put them in a corner and throw away the key."

She said the emphasis at the Life Skills Center is on independence in every arena, including art. She also said Oliver, who talks mostly by repeating the words of others and could not be interviewed, shuns any guidance or instruction.

As a result, he has developed his own distinctive style, according to Wendy Kramer, who teaches art at the center. For many years, his focus has been centered on stripes: Stripes that extend from the top to the bottom of his paper and include an array of brilliant and subtle tones of mostly red, blue and brown.

Oliver's principal medium is Cray-Pas oil crayon sticks, using them so far down to the nub that his fingernails scratch the surface of his work, producing a textured effect.

While Kramer had to coax the other students to an hour-long art session one day last week, Oliver was in his painters uniform within minutes setting up his work area.

"Right from the beginning, you could tell Gary had a passion and need for art," said Kramer, who has taught him for six years. "He always takes his work a step further. He is always so focused on what he is doing."

The exhibit continues through Jan. 31. The gallery is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., except Thursdays, when it is open until 8 p.m. It is also open Saturday from 10 to 4 p.m.