In a home where screaming, eye-blackening violence is routine, there sometimes is a conspiracy of silence.

Oh, maybe Mom cries when Dad is striking out against some kind of frustration and the kids whimper from fear, but in the morning the sun shines again and everybody tries to act as if nothing happened."It's not too bad," says Mom. "Don't tell the neighbors."

The children go along with the charade.

This was the picture of a troubled home as described by staff members at Craft Alliance Center for the Visual Arts, a gallery-studio where artists don't brush away problems. Instead, some of them team with therapists to help perpetrators of violence and their victims see what is happening.

An experimental program has been under way at Craft Alliance since September to determine whether art is a practical tool in family therapy.

The project is being underwritten by an $18,000 grant from Target Stores as part of its "Project Family - St. Louis" program. A total of $125,000 was given by Target to eight agencies that focus on the prevention of family violence.

At Craft Alliance, troubled family members are urged to express their feelings about their situations on paper or with clay. One of the weekly classes is for children, where Sharyl Parashak is a counselor.

"A child from a violent home might draw a tornado," Ms. Parashak said. "It represents a situation where he is out of control. He may show himself hiding from the storm, just as he does when his parents are fighting. Or he might draw airplane battles. Or spiders.

"We don't try to analyze the participants' work, but we try to help them understand what they are doing. I might ask, `Is the spider friendly?' The youngster's response could cause him to talk about his home situation and recognize his feelings."

The children's therapy group, for ages 3-14, usually meets at the same time as one of the classes for women who have experienced abuse.

"This gives the women a place to put their children while they are being helped," said Craft Alliance director Valerie Miller. "Nearly always they both need therapy. No artistic talent is necessary to participate in the program, by the way."

Men who have engaged in abusive behavior and who have had at least nine months of treatment may participate in the program at Craft Alliance in the RAVEN (Rape And Violence End Now) program.

"If a man comes here, he does it voluntarily," said therapist Floyd Smith. "Some men see art as a fresh approach to deal with problems. After a year of conventional therapy, they may feel talked out, but now they have a way to give form and color and shape to issues."

To stimulate ideas, those in the various programs are sometimes asked to play therapeutic games. Smith usually teams with artist Andy Erickson.

In one exercise, the player is given a word and allowed five seconds to choose a marker and give that word color and shape. A typical list: love, sad, jealous, hate, mad, content.

"Sometimes the results are interesting," Smith said. "The depiction of the words `mad' and `sad' might be similar, for example. I'll ask, `Does that make sense to you?' I've had participants say, `Oh, yeah,' and then tell me why. We don't do any diagnosing. They make the discoveries on their own."

Often the Craft Alliance clients use their art to indicate the changing status of their feelings.

Therapist Cathy Rauch said, "A woman will come back a week after starting a project and say, `I've been thinking about my art work, and I don't like it; I want to change it. The clay is too stiff. I want it, and my life, to be more rounded.' Or she'll say, `I know why I did that last week,' and she'll go on to tell me what's going on in her life."

The art projects can reveal hidden fears among varying groups, whether it is counselor Toni Wirts' group of abused women living in a sheltered environment at the Salvation Army or adolescent children.

"Imaginations are scary," Rauch said, "often worse than reality. A young child who is sent to his or her room during an argument might imagine that the parents are going at each other with knives, or an older youngster might assume that some sort of sex abuse is happening, although the actual violence may be verbal. Kids fill in with their minds what they don't know."

Art therapy, Valerie Miller noted, has been employed since the 1940s, but the Target Stores' project is believed to be the first involving family violence. Data on the results of the program will be compiled next month.