Walking into Columbia Art Center's newest gallery is like standing in front of a giant refrigerator door.
From colorful scrawls to hand-painted tiles of African elephants, the room's walls, tables and floors shimmer with children's artwork.
"MontAGE: Young People's Gallery of Columbia" officially opened Sept. 9 as a permanent display area for county youngsters ages 4 to 18.
"Our focus was children and how to involve them in creative ways and in the community," said Rebecca Bafford, who has been the Art Center's director for six months.
"The schools have sports and games with tangible results. But there's not too much around for kids to use their creative talents. We thought this was a good way to showcase what youth are producing so they can be proud of all the work they're doing."
The first exhibit, "ArtFULL Collection of Creations by Young Students," will be on display through Oct. 19 showcasing the ceramics, drawings, paintings, sculptures and tiles by children ages 6 to 16 who have studied at the center.
The gallery also will feature rotating exhibitions by area schools, home schooling groups, after-school programs and other children's organizations.
The Columbia Art Center, under the umbrella of the Columbia Association, houses three galleries, eight studios and a Japanese garden used for sketching.
Aspiring adult and child artists learn ceramics, photography, painting and decorative arts such as stained glass and jewelry in the same building that displays the works of accomplished artists.
Its new gallery features a season packed with art and cultural programs that staff members hope will inspire and educate:
* One plan is for school art teachers to help students organize an exhibit and reception -- cheese and all.
* The staff also plans to bring in established artists whose works are on exhibit in the center's larger galleries, such as Columbia metal sculptor Ed Kidera, for informal discussions with community youth.
"We plan to incorporate talk with all classes here so kids [can become] more involved with larger aspects of art," said Ms. Bafford, 27, who lives in Columbia.
* The gallery also will present exhibitions by internationally recognized artists to educate youngsters on multicultural and historical themes, integrating art with dance, puppets and storytelling.
Columbia artist Jo Ann Sailer, who recently taught art in China, will bring in Chinese artist tools and costumes, and an information display explaining their use.
* The center's First Annual Doll Show in December, featuring the dolls of former clown Marnee Krizek of Pennsylvania, will be topped off by a doll making workshop.
In conjunction with the gallery opening, the Art Center also started an after-school art and recreation program for middle school students that meets three afternoons per week.
Seventh-grader Drew Rhodehamel, who sketches in art classes at Owen Brown Middle School, paints whimsical figures on furniture and creates ceramics at the center.
"My mom wanted me to do something creative after school, and I enjoy art," said the 12-year-old from Columbia.
"Drew is creative," said Charles Rhodehamel, Drew's father. "He's often building things such as three-dimensional sculpture. This class gives him creative time where he can be left to his own devices. It provides challenges and interest."
Finished works will be exhibited.
"We'll fly in the grandparents," Mr. Rhodehamel said.
One of the program's more ambitious projects is a collaborative tile project for the Baltimore Zoo.
Hand-painted tiles of zoo animals created in the after-school program will become a permanent fixture along the top of the zoo's open Giraffe House, where live giraffes peek over exhibit walls.
The class already has had a tile test-run. Students' hand-painted tiles of snakes and elephants and other creatures they might see in the zoo's "African Exhibit" line part of the gallery's floor.
The giraffe exhibit will debut in the annual spring "Howard County Day at the Zoo," which Ms. Bafford said, should be a gratifying experience for the young artists.
The Columbia Art Center in the Village of Long Reach will feature the exhibit "ArtFULL Collection of Creations by Young Students" through Oct. 19. Open daily. Information: 730-0075.