Keevon Howard, 17, and Justin Blackmoore and James Colwell, both 12, cut the ribbon during the opening of a youth art exhibit last week at the U.S. Education Department. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

This particular piece of art, 17-year-old Keevon Howard said, was born out of conflict.

Keevon, a high school senior from Rhode Island, had been clashing with his mother when he created the collage in art class.

"He turned 17 and thought he was grown," his mother, Kinya Howard, said.

But the two still had a formidable connection, said her son. That is represented in his mixed-media artwork, with its image of a mother and child nestled among light and dark magazine clippings.

"This is supposed to be me and my mother, and positivity and negativity in the world," said Keevon, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and struggles with behavioral issues, according to his mother. "And that nothing in the world can break the bond."

Keevon's artwork is on display at the U.S. Education Department in Washington, part of an exhibit that showcases pieces created by young people with disabilities. The exhibit, which opened last week, includes more than a dozen ­pieces created by young artists from five countries.

"It's amazing," Keevon said when asked what it was like to see his work displayed.

The exhibit includes a colorful painting of a fish's head with reddish-orange scales and bright-pink fish lips. There's also a jaunty picture of a girl, a blue-and-yellow bow in her hair, a clutch of other people at her side. The artist, a 17-year-old girl in South Korea, titled the work "I Exist Because of My Family."

"Art connects us," Kimberly Richey, acting assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services in the Education Department, told a crowd that gathered for the exhibit opening. "Art allows us to celebrate, it cultivates our connections with each other. It's therapeutic for some. Through art, we know that we can dream and we can dare, and we can surpass our limits and we can grow as individuals."

The show is expected to remain at department headquarters, on Maryland Avenue SW, until the end of December. The agency's ground-floor lobby regularly welcomes art exhibitions, and the one that opened last week is accessible to members of the public who have an escort.

"Here at the department, our lives are changed every time we have an opening and talk to students about their work," said ­Jackye Zimmermann, co-founder and director of the department's student art exhibit program and director of editorial policy and publications.

When a show comes down, Zimmermann said, she gets phone calls from employees who explain that there is a piece they need to see before starting their day. For these staff members, the art serves as a reminder that what they do at the department has an impact, she said.

"Believe me," she said, "the artwork here changes our lives every day."

As the exhibit opened, Keevon and other students, parents and educators discussed the role of the arts and what they can offer. The group included 12-year-old Jaden Blackmoore, a seventh-grader at the District's School Without Walls at ­Francis-Stevens.

His work was not included in the show, but he spoke about what the arts mean to him, about how he used to be more interested in music and then got into drawing.

"What I found out is, you can draw a whole world from your mind, straight onto paper," Jaden said. "You can make it 3-D, 2-D, even 4-D. I don't know if that's possible — it may be."

Keevon told the crowd that he uses art to express his feelings, because he can't really do that in other ways. Art, he said, opens a door.

"My art teacher, she basically gives us the supplies and tells us to express our feelings," he said. "There's only one rule — don't erase. Because in life, you have to deal with your problems. So whatever you put on the paper is what you deal with."

The works included in the exhibit were selected by VSA, an international organization on arts and disability at the Kennedy Center.

"The arts are a powerful tool for everybody," said Mario Rossero, senior vice president of education at the Kennedy Center. "No matter who you are."

Rossero isn't really allowed to have a favorite work of art in the exhibit, he said. But he mentioned Keevon and what the teen had said on the panel.

"This is the one that I'm going to leave thinking about," Rossero said.