RICHMOND -- How often can you walk into a fine art gallery and, if a piece "speaks" to you, pull it off the wall, pay an amount roughly equal to half your weekly grocery bill and take it home?

Two hours after you find your Rembrandt, Klee, or Cassatt, a masterpiece is hanging above your sofa.

The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is happening every day during "Affordable Art From the Heart," an exhibit running through Dec. 28 at the NIAD Art Center (National Institute of Art and Disabilities) at 551 23rd St.

"All the work is on paper and priced between $15 and $150," explains Gallery Director Tim Buckwalter. "Unlike the paintings that sell for $1,000, this is a great introduction to art. People can have it in their homes the same day they discover it."

NIAD is all about discovery, with experienced, professional artists leading adults with developmental or physical disabilities through courses in ceramics, fiber art, sculpture, printmaking, mixed media and painting.

That is, they lead when the students will follow.

"Oh yeah, he never listens to me anymore," Studio Manager Andres Cisneros-Galindo says, contemplating the art of one prized student and saying with a laugh, "that's how I know he's good."

"It's true," Executive Director Deborah Dyer proclaims proudly. "Our artists aren't good at taking direction, they're good at expressing."

It sounds unruly, but one glance at the resulting artwork displayed in the intimate, clean-lined gallery space, leaves no mistaken impression: these artists know how to push the paint.

If it weren't an insult, one could imagine several of the pieces -- framed and with a few more zeros added to their price tags -- displayed in a contemporary New York SoHo gallery. These artists may be limited in their ability to speak, see or move, but their art shouts "ability!" and several pieces rise to an echoing "masterful."

A painting by 27-year-old Jonathan Valdivias leaps off the wall. A supersized, cartoony head teeters atop a hodge-podged torso; the underlying base coat of blue adding energy, revealed in the artist's arcing scrapes and scrawls.

Arista Dawson, who has limited mobility in her arms, leaves much of the paper empty. Descending, diagonal lines quaver, then fall off the bottom edge. On one sloping line, a rabbit-shaped form hangs, like a rock climber contemplating an inevitable fall.

Ray Brown shows a particular sensitivity to color with a densely painted piece suggesting a park, or perhaps a homemade quilt put together with hilly, irregular edging.

Miraculously, or coincidentally, Kristi Dean takes her appreciation of a favorite fruit onto the paper. A frenzy of purple swirls is framed by a frothy, contrasting color.

"She likes oranges: she understands orange," Cisneros-Galindo says, as if the association were simple. "She's been blind since birth, but she knows orange."

"I think of our teachers as mentors," Dyers says. "These artists have no fear. They are doing it to satisfy whatever drives them."

She'd like to increase the artists' public visibility, so more of them can follow in the footsteps of artists like Marlon Mullens, an NIAD student whose recent solo show at New York City's White Columns alternative art space was an enormous success.

Six of Mullen's thick, graphic paintings are on display in the annex gallery during the current exhibit.

Buckwalter says that about 30 artists work in the adjacent studio space every day. It's a full day program, with opportunities for the artists to socialize, learn project management, participate in field trips, and perform a giveback by delivering for Meals on Wheels or assisting with studio upkeep.

Funding for NIAD comes from the Regional Center of the East Bay and corporate, foundation, and individual donations. Sales from the gift store and exhibits are divided 50-50 between the artist and NIAD.

Buckwalter is ambitious in his new, two-month-old position at the gallery. Claiming he wants to do just two things -- bring NIAD artists out into the community and bring visiting artists into NIAD -- he can't contain his future dreams.

"I want to start a Richmond Art Crawl," he says. "I want to have small, craft exhibits. I'm starting an Art-of-the-month club. In May, we're having a 'School's Out Forever' event with artwork from local high school seniors."

Against the brilliantly energetic backdrop of the "Art From the Heart" exhibit, hopes take flight: anything is possible.

If you go
"Affordable Art From the Heart" runs through Dec. 28 during regular gallery hours from 9 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The exhibit also has weekend hours from 10 to 5 p.m. Dec. 2 and 11 to 4 p.m. Dec. 8.
Details: 510-620-0326 or niadart.org.