WHEN BOSTON artist Elizabeth Ahern was invited to contribute to a Baltimore exhibition about the AIDS crisis, she painted strips of paper in velvety dark shades, colors that seem to soothe the soul like shadows on a long stretch of desert -- or cool hands on a fevered body.
Her work "Paper Prayers" is one of more than 200 artworks sent by artists throughout the country as part of "Visual AIDS," an exhibition sponsored by Baltimore's new Museum for Contemporary Arts. Held in a temporary space at the Famous Ballroom, 1717 N. Charles St., the show will run Saturday through Dec. 22. It is one of thousands of special events planned to recognize the World Health Organization's third AIDS Awareness Day on Saturday.
In co-operation with the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Museum for Contemporary Arts invited established and emerging artists to create pieces specifically for this mail-in exhibition. The show includes paintings, drawings, video, ceramics, fabric, photographs, constructions and jewelry. It ranges from pieces by such well known national artists as Charles Schultz and Sam Francis to the work of lesser known artists attending Park School, Loyola High School and Baltimore School for the Arts.
After the show, the museum will donate all of the artwork to hospitals, hospices, organizations supportive of AIDS-related programs and research, and to people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
Ahern's "Paper Prayers" is constructed in a way that asks its admirers to take it home with them.
"I had read about a Japanese tradition of offering painted strips of paper to sustain good health and cure the sick," Ahern says. "When I got this call, I thought, 'What is the most personal thing I could do?' . . . These pieces of paper are my prayers, my good wishes, extensions of me and of my way of giving to those who need beauty around them when they are not well."
Fiber artist Jann Rosen-Queralt is one of several artists from the Maryland Institute to create an original installation for the show. Her piece, "Needle in a Haystack," incorporates the former ballroom's stage into a metaphorical work that explores connections between the past life of the space as a dance and music hall and the state of terminal disease.
She believes that the situations of being caught up on the dance floor and of living with mortal illness share an intensity that create "a tangle of the senses." This piece investigates the different layers of that correspondence.
Programmed tapes of big band and jazz performances will play simultaneously from three speakers situated at different spots in the installation. Rosen-Queralt's work also uses formal shirts, a pyramid-shaped mound of pine needles surrounded by eggshells and spider plants, and enlarged photographs of various bonelike rock formations from the Japanese island of Shikoku. In addition, visitors are invited to record memories of larger-than-life moments in special dance cards that the artist has provided and intends to use in her installation.
One of the biggest challenges facing the show is the rapid transformation of the Famous Ballroom -- now little more than a shell of its former self -- into a temporary gallery. Because the artwork was not due until last Saturday, installing the large collection of art began only a few days ago. David Brown, exhibitions director at the Maryland Institute, has assembled an all-volunteer crew of about 25 people to help build temporary walls, work on lighting and to arrange and hang the work.
"It is almost a dream come true because there are no requirements," Brown says. "At this point we're able to do almost anything we want inside the space. . . . I find it very exciting. We're talking about a good 5,000 square feet with ceilings which are 20 feet high. It's massive, it's fabulous!"
Another unusual aspect of this show is that every visitor is invited to participate by creating art from materials at the site; several schools have already scheduled art classes at the site.
The Museum for Contemporary Arts, which does not yet have a permanent site, is dedicated to showing national and international arts of the present. A large part of its mission is to display a range of artistic visions on compelling social and political issues. It also seeks to expose as many people as possible to contemporary arts through innovative educational outreach programs.
"VISUAL AIDS" is the first of four programs that the new museum will sponsor in temporary spaces during the next year. An exhibition of photography by Soviet artists -- work never before shown outside of the U.S.S.R. -- is planned for the spring.
"VISUAL AIDS" will run from noon to 8 p.m. daily through Dec. 22. The opening reception is 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday.