When Karen Ward came here four years ago, she was an out-of-work Wall Street pension-fund manager hoping that a dose of island life would help her figure out what she wanted to do next with her career.

After hanging out with local artists for about six months, Ward rekindled an old interest in painting and developed a particular interest in decorative painting - stenciling walls and creating colorful murals on furniture.Convinced by her artistic bent that a career in the financial world was well behind her, Ward pooled her savings to attend art schools across the country, perfecting the decorative methods of (itals)trompe l'oeil(unitals), marbleizing, wall glazing, stenciling and wood graining.

She then returned to Nantucket, opened an art studio and set about establishing Nantucket Decorative Painting, a business catering to the whims and whimsies of homeowners who want their houses to stand out from the rest.

Ward and her three partners do much of their work at this time of year, when summer residents have cleared out of their homes and the team can work without interruption.

"The island is very busy in the winter with people like us," says Ward, a fast-talking wisp of a woman who favors clogs, flannel shirts and paint-stained pants. "Most of our clients are not islanders, and the houses we work in are empty all winter long. When the summer people come back, they're always excited to see what we've done."

In the two years since her business began, Ward has challenged her own talents and those of her painting partners, Maretta del Conte, Ronn Akins and Cliff Wise, by turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.

In one Main Street home, for example, she has turned a pedestrian laundry room into a regal English garden by painting sky, meadows and flowering plants onto the walls and ceiling.

An entire room in another home is transformed into a four-sided Nantucket scene, with a church tower, a beach, a lighthouse and the island's historic windmill. The floor has been rendered into a lily pond so lifelike that it makes one wonder for a quick second whether shoes should be removed to test the water temperature.

Ward has painted windows where there were none, carefully recreating the view that would have been there if a window existed.

An everyday kitchen floor has been made into a day at the beach, with floorboards painted to look like sand scattered with seashells.

Stepping into one island bathroom is like stepping into the ocean, where colorful fish and crustaceans float and crawl along the sandy bottom, while sailboats cruise the surface.

"People really like what's whimsical, fun and fantasy," says Ward, one of five decorative painters on the island. "A lot of people also like scenes from the island in their homes, to reflect their love of Nantucket."

Kathy Hughes, owner with her husband, George, of the Fair Winds Inn on Cliff Road, has employed Ward for about three years to help give the house more personality by creating environments in every room.

Ward has marbleized a staircase leading to a third-floor suite at the 20-room inn, created a gingham check on the surrounding walls, added stenciling above each of the guest-room doorways and has given new life to antique bureaus and chairs.

"As soon as you come into an inn, you want people to get that feeling of, ohhh ...," says Hughes, who has owned the inn since 1978. "You should feel good right away, because that's what vacation is all about.

"Nantucket gives a feeling of going back in time, and all the decorative arts give that feeling, too," she says. "Anything done by hand is going to be rich and artistic."

Debbie Cleveland, an innkeeper at the Wauwinet, an exclusive resort on the island, says Ward's innovative touches have helped make guests feel relaxed.

Ward has created two (itals)trompe l'oeil(unitals) windows at the inn, one of which is framed by a porthole with an ocean scene, adding to the nautical flavor of the room. She has also painted the floor in the bar area of the inn's restaurant to replicate the marble bar and tables.

"This is not a stuffy place," says Cleveland. "When you talk about all the factors that make this place unique, Karen's work adds to the ambience. People find it amusing; it makes them laugh, it makes them relax and it makes them want to come back."

Ward, whose most recent job was to faux-teak nearly 300 plastic switchplates, air vents and any other accessories that touched the teak walls and floor in a new home in the village of Siasconset, says she is looking forward to a busy spring and summer. "People have a lot of money to spend on their homes, and they do. They are willing to pay for something custom-made."

As word gets around the island, particularly among the well-to-do summer residents who see her work in each other's homes, she receives an increasing number of requests for custom designs.

If she sees a new house being constructed, Ward will typically ask the developer to help her get in touch with the owner so she can send them her portfolio. Aside from advertising in local newspapers and magazines, she also gets jobs by showing photos of her work to real estate agents, builders, interior decorators and even insurance agents.

"Word of mouth is really important here," says Ward. "People want you to come recommended."

Although she likes to schedule at least a week for most jobs, some take much longer. One example is the faux-teaking project, which took more than two weeks. Her company generally charges $35 per hour for work, but pricing depends on the demands of the job.

Last year, Ward says, she made about $90,000, roughly $20,000 more than she earned her last year on Wall Street.

"There was a time when I was going to art school that I hardly ate," she recalls. "But I had to take that leap of faith."

A native of Scarsdale, N.Y., Ward says she hopes to make enough money in the coming years to buy a home here and to eventually be successful enough to open a decorative painting school.

"My friends see me now and they say, `What happened to you? Where are the Joan and David shoes, the Brooks Brothers suits and the pearls?"' she says, laughing. "I am happier here than I ever was on Wall Street.

"Where else can you find people who want their whole bathroom painted like a fish tank?"