The youngsters walked into the narrow display space and immediately began discussing what it was, exactly, they were looking at.
"It's underwater," said one.
"It's like a forest," said another.
"I think it's right under the ground, looking at the grass growing down," said a third.
"It looks like creatures from Mars, just creatures we made up," said 8-year-old Dana Nixon, with a justifiable proprietary air. She helped create the exhibition, after all.
"Whatever anybody sees is fine. I try not to put tags on things. Everybody sees something completely different," said professional artist Francisco Alvarado-Juarez.
He guided the creation of this exhibit at the Maryland Institute's Mount Royal Station, an unusual collaboration with students from nearby Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School.
The colorful exhibition displays painted paper bags of many sizes and with carefully fringed tops mounted in clumps on the green walls. Bright-colored paintings of fanciful creatures lurk in the baggy foliage. Scraps of paper trimmed from the bags litter the floor like leaves.
The vividly colored, somewhat primitively drawn figures look unmistakably Latin-American in tone, and Mr. Alvarado-Juarez concedes his painting themes have been strongly influenced by pre-Columbian Mexican art.
But the Honduras-born painter, who was artist-in-residence at Mount Royal School this fall, said, "I purposely did it so you can't tell whose work is whose."
He began the school year with just a half-dozen youngsters visiting his in-school studio twice a week, as art teacher William Morin identified promising students.
"It kind of grew as we went along," said the artist. The number of students swelled to 12, then 18 as word of the project aroused interest.
"I asked them to draw, draw, and draw some more," he said.
Although his involvement was supposed to end in October, he extended his residence two months to create the current exhibit.
Seventeen students are credited in the exhibit brochure with helping to create "With a Child's Voice."
"It was all supposed to be imaginary," explained eighth-grader Cory Figueroa as he toured the finished exhibit with other students Tuesday.
Cory was among the core group of student painters.
So was fellow eighth-grader Edward Goodman, who said the artist-in-residence program has made him think, "I might be an architect or archaeologist, because you have to draw to show the things you find or predict."
Fourth-grader Elena Spitzer shyly pointed to a cat-like yellow face she drew that had been transferred to the exhibit walls. Sixth-graders Sharron Smith, Tracie Thompson and Ossie Jones walked through to point out the figures they had painted.
At first, Mr. Alvaredo-Juarez said, he'd found the drawings of his students to be derivative of a variety of popular culture figures, such as television and cartoon characters. "That's just very boring because it's not original," he told the youngsters.
Some began copying his own paintings, but he admonished, "I want you to do nothing but stuff out of your heads."
Eventually, he said, "the more they drew the more lucid and original their work became."
Mr. Alvaredo-Juarez said his goal was not to identify future artists, necessarily, but to encourage the students to be creative in a society that he contends stifles the creative impulse.
And he wishes he had had such an opportunity when he was younger.
"I'm still playing catch-up," the 43-year-old painter said -- he did not take up brush and canvas until he was 28.
He had previously worked as a photographer and writer, and also taught art and Spanish in a Brooklyn, N.Y., junior high school for two years.
"I felt always constrained by whatever medium I was working in until I discovered painting," he said.
But he was lucky. His first painting, produced after two months of working with brushes, was bought by influential collector Joseph Hirshhorn, who encouraged him to continue in the medium.
"Who knows? Maybe these minds [of his students] will take this experience in a completely different way than we could imagine 15 years from now," he said.
"WITH A CHILD'S VOICE"
What: A collaborative exhibit with works by Raynold Bowles, Cory Figueroa, Edward Goodman, Lakeisha Greene, Winndi Jackson, Sharon Johnson, Ossie Jones, Jennifer McPherson, Dana Nixon, Talitha Ramsey, Ivory Saunders, Tamel Saunders, Elesha Smith, Sharron Smith, Volanta Smith, Elena Spitzer and Tracie Thompson
Where: Maryland Institute, College of Art's Mount Royal Station.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; through Dec. 30 (closed Dec. 23-25)
Call: (410) 225-2300