At first glance, Tia Prather seems like an average 16-year-old girl. She rushes to the phone when it rings. She dreams of attending college soon. She's lively. She enjoys fashion and spends a lot of time on her hobby, art.

However, Tia's hobby has turned out to be more than just a simple pastime. She is a budding artist whose passion for creating beautiful artwork is apparent when someone views her colorful and inspirational pieces, which light up a room almost as much as she does.

"I would just draw in my free time, and then I would just show people," Tia said. "They would [say], 'Oh, that's really good, Tia.' "

Tia has awed those around her with her unique work since as long ago as kindergarten.

Now her style has matured, and her work is on exhibit in her professional debut at Blackberry in the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

The exhibit, which features more than 20 original pieces, opened Oct. 31 and will continue through Saturday. It will be on display at Attitude Exact on Capitol Hill after it leaves Blackberry.

Most of her pieces feature African women. "When I showed [my first artwork of African women] to people, they really liked it. I knew I was good in art, but I didn't find a feel to keep doing it. I finally realized I can draw African women pretty good. I started doing that and started to do more," Tia said.

She sold her first painting, which was only her second piece in the African series, a year ago to a friend's mother.

"The first one that sold was really just construction paper," said Fabrienne Johnson, Tia's mother. That creation sold for a mere $30. Today, the most expensive piece in the exhibit is $900.

In addition to the 12- to 14-hour days Tia worked in preparation for the exhibit, her talent and success can be attributed to other things--such as having other artists in her family, including an aunt and a great-great-grandfather.

Tia's learning style also may contribute to her talent. "I learn through pictures," said Tia, a junior at the Lab School of Washington, which is known for its programs for children and adults with learning disabilities.

"She makes cards and puts pictures all over to remember. It has to be visual," said Johnson, who refers to her daughter's style as a "learning difference."

"I took her to George Washington University, and I started getting her tutored in the first grade. I kept telling the teachers I was concerned about the way she was reading," Johnson said.

The graduate students and faculty at GW identified Tia's learning difference.

"Tia has a high visual IQ. She tests way up in visual performance and normal in verbal performance. That point gap caused some problems in terms of encoding and decoding. She has difficulty spelling. She's very right-brained, very spatial. In geometry, she does well," Johnson said. Tia, she said, maintains a B average. "Whatever her neurological wiring is, it's highly visual."

Although others noticed Tia's talent at an early age, Johnson admits she was preoccupied with finding a school for her daughter and did not notice her daughter's gift as soon as some others.

"I hired an attorney and sued the D.C. public school system, because it's a law that says they must teach a child with what [she] brings to the door," said Johnson, who is pleased with her daughter's progress since she began attending the Lab School in fifth grade.

"It's a place that's really helped pull up her reading level and confidence level," Johnson said.

"It's a little easier now," said Tia, "but I still have trouble with spelling and sounding out words."

Tia, who had no formal art training previously, is being taught at school about different media and techniques.

"I use color pencils, fabric, acrylic on canvas, wax and some construction paper. I want to start doing sculpture and printmaking," she said. Tia also is exploring graphic art and design. "You can make mountains, skies, oceans. You can make any architectural or landscape design."

Johnson said her daughter's career plan also has a practical design in mind. "She basically told me, 'Artists starve.' That's why she's leaning more towards graphics." Johnson said she will try not to influence her daughter's collegiate decisions too much. "A lot of very good artists don't necessarily [study art]. I'm going to try to take her around and let her decide" what college she wants to attend. Tia currently is being tutored for the SAT.

Johnson is very supportive of her daughter's work.

"I did the promotion" for the art show, said Johnson, who has a marketing degree. "I've done everything I can to support launching her into other areas."

Tia advises other young people not to give up on their dreams, a lesson she learned through her artistic and academic struggles--and from her mother.

"I always told her to do her best," Johnson said. "I have never said, 'You're learning disabled.' "

CAPTION: Tia Prather, a junior at the Lab School of Washington, has a show of her art at Blackberry at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City through Saturday.