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Is visual art a commingling of complex, premeditated strokes or a splash of emotional abandon? Four mentally retarded artists, whose works on paper are being exhibited at Dupont Circle’s Painting and Sculpture Studio (PASS) this month, prove that art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

“I just love their marks,” says local artist Wendy Kramer. “They can break all the rules and still make it work.” For more than 15 years, Kramer has taught small classes of retarded students at the Life Skills Center in Mount Pleasant, but she refuses to be called a teacher. With time, she says, she has become a conductor. Orchestrating her students’ organic creative energy is key; hers is a role marked by finesse.

A quivering hand, spontaneous body rocking, and suspended animation are “motion cues” that help Kramer manage a pupil’s artistic momentum. They signal her to lay out a different paint assembly, to bring attention to empty spots on the paper, or to back off. “You can’t be too intrusive on them,” says Kramer. “It’s a balancing act.”

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When the University of Maryland fine arts graduate first came to the Life Skills Center searching for an escape from more mainstream teaching gigs, her approach, she admits, was off-center. Kramer’s attempts to instill basic principles of art and create still-life artists were fruitless. But after a year, she says, she “let go” and began interacting with students from an intuitive, sensory-based perspective. Veritable abstract art found its way to the paper, and her own “very, very nervous” tension began to dissipate.

Kramer is charged with getting her students’ work displayed, and the PASS show was a coup. “I was particularly thrilled when we were accepted,” says Kramer. “Our artists were validated for their art.”

Some of Kramer’s artists are unaware that an art world even exists, much less that their own untitled works have catapulted them into it. On opening night, Eurice Marsh sold a bold oil paint and gauze creation to a District artist for $350, but Marsh was absent. “She’ll probably be happy to have the money to buy a cup of coffee,” Kramer says of her student. “It’s not important to her creativity whether she sells or not.” —Nefretiti Makenta

“Four Washington Abstract Painters: Artists From Life Skills Center”

is on exhibit Tuesdays through Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at PASS, 1617 Rear S St. NW (202) 745-0796.