The faces, molded from white plaster, stared from the table waiting for the teenagers to transform them into colorful masks. With a seemingly endless supply of paints, glitter, feathers, yarn and shimmery beads, their imaginations could run wild.

"They can look realistic or you can really have fun with it," teacher Elizabeth Cox told her students. "There's no wrong way to do it."

For a moment, it was like any art class.

Then came Cox's stern warning.

"I have two pairs of scissors, so help me make sure they're all accounted for," she said. "If not, you're asking for a strip search. You all know the routine."

The students are inmates at the Loudoun County Juvenile Detention Center, the masks a creative outlet for them to explore and express their feelings. Cox, an art therapist, uses painting and sketching to help her understand the teenagers and help them understand themselves. Like the masks, some projects take a casual approach--just doing them is therapy enough--and aren't intended as intense exercises in self-discovery.

But once each week, Cox and some of the young inmates meet for hour-long sessions in which they tackle serious issues. Although the art typically is shared only with counselors and others in the session, several pieces are now on display at Eastern Loudoun Regional Library in Sterling through Aug. 8. The exhibit is part of a special project in which students volunteered to have their work shown in public.

"The artwork is a part of themselves," Cox said. "We're trying to get the kids to take responsibility. You help them understand what the actions were that got them here."

The detention center, near the Leesburg Municipal Airport, houses as many as 24 youngsters ages 11 to 17 who are awaiting trial or serving short sentences--some for serious offenses such as assault or drug possession, others for violating probation by skipping school or staying out too late. The typical stay is 21 days.

Art therapy, Cox said, is as much about the creating as about the end product. Her students are asked to express their dreams or fears or impressions of relationships using paper and paint. One week they sketched things they wanted to change about themselves. Another week they were asked to create images of the "things you want to achieve."

While they work, and afterward, students and counselor talk about what they are trying to convey.

"You're looking not only at the artwork, you're looking at how they do it," Cox said. "It's more about knowing how they got there."

During last week's mask-making session, four teenage boys chatted about their masks--and their situations. One, a quiet 16-year-old who said he was locked up on a carjacking charge, began painting the mold a warm brown shade. It would become, he said, the face of rapper Puff Daddy. Across the table, a 17-year-old worried aloud that he was about to turn 18 and be sent to the Leesburg jail. He started painting a face that "might be me" in jail.

A third youth, a 16-year-old jailed for violating probation on a drug charge, sketched an intricate design on his mask and began filling in the lines with black paint.

"It's my superhero," he said.

After adding purple, blue and yellow swirls, he reassessed his creation.

"I would have to say this man is lost," he said. "He's not a superhero. He's a lost soul. He's had a bad life. He can present himself as happy, but he's not."

"Like a clown," the 17-year-old said.

"Exactly," came the response.

Cox, who had been listening quietly, joined in: "You say he hides his real emotions? Do you do that?"

The teenager agreed that he "did that all the time" and then turned back to his mask, adding black and green feathers, multicolored glitter and yellow yarn.

Cox, who has a master's degree in art therapy, started at the jail as a counselor. She said counselors recommend inmates who might benefit from the program. Some inmates, she said, seem angry. Others are withdrawn or depressed.

Cox said the teenagers sometimes are surprised at how the program helps. They learn about another inmate's struggle with drugs or problems they face with their families and find someone they can relate to.

"Sometimes the kids find out they're not alone," Cox said. "It's a comfort."

Other times, Cox said, the teenagers find it difficult to express their feelings in words or on paper and will grow sullen or leave a painting unfinished. Those troubling sessions sometimes yield the greatest reward.

"I relate it to life," Cox said. "Maybe you're angry and you want to kick another kid, and maybe you're having the same problems with your art. How can you change the art without destroying it?"

There are times, Cox said, when she lets her young students use a technique she knows won't achieve the result they want. "If I see them try something the wrong way, use the wrong brush, sometimes I have to let them do it," Cox said. "You let them learn to ask for help or how to fix a problem."

Although the program's results can't be quantified, Cox said, there are small victories each time a teenager gains a little confidence or learns to overcome a problem.

"We're trying to do something good for these kids," Cox said. "You hope you've made enough of an impact that they don't come back."

CAPTION: Art by Juvenile Detention Center inmates is on display at Eastern Loudoun Regional Library.