A secondhand coffee table becomes a pond of twisting koi. An unfinished wood stool becomes a dragon's lair. And three figures tumble into a surrealistic peppermint spiral on the seat of a thrift store stool.

Such is the stuff of Teen Dreams.Teen Dreams is a 3-month-old nonprofit art program for teens in Ventura County, Calif., modeled after a program called Young Aspirations/Young Artists, or YA/YA, in New Orleans.

It's an opportunity for teens to experience what it's like to be a professional artist, as well as a positive alternative to all the negative influences teens face these days.

"Every teen is an `at-risk' teen," said Teen Dreams co-administrator Leeann Lidz. "They're at risk for drugs, alcohol, teenage violence and low school performance. This keeps them occupied and interested."

Teens ages 14 to 18 are invited to participate in Teen Dreams. The only qualification they need, Lidz said, is to be "willing to make a commitment to their creativity."

Initial recruitment for the Teen Dreams was via referrals from local art-school teachers.

Shortly after the program began in December 1997, word started to spread.

"Laura dragged me down here," said Amy Escobar, 15, pointing to her pal, Laura Hardesty, 16. "I thought I'd just sit there, but I wound up painting," Escobar said as she worked on a green-and-blue stool with a cherub painted on the seat.

Teens who participate in Teen Dreams get 19 hours of studio time at Kids' Art studio in downtown Ventura. Teen Dreams is funded through the private, nonprofit Children's Services Auxiliary, so the program, art materials and instruction from professional artists is all free. The program is funded with grants from various organizations, including $50,000 from the Drug and Alcohol Division of the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department.

Teens in the program get instruction on the creative side of an art career as well as a look at the business end. The 21 teens currently taking advantage of the program are organizing their own Teen Dreams Functional Art Show.

"This is to show them the nitty-gritty stuff behind an art show," said Teen Dreams instructor Jane McKinney.

The stars of the show will be secondhand and unfinished furniture the teen artists have painted and decorated with acrylic paint and mosaic pieces.

The smell of paint mingles with rock music at the Kids' Art studio as Hardesty sticks colored marbles on the top of a dresser in an "S" formation.

"Check out what I've done on the dresser," Hardesty said to fellow Teen Dreams artist Adena Patten, 15, of Ventura.

"Yeah," Patten said. "It's really rad."

The teens see their art as a means of expression and, at least in 17-year-old Will Goodman's case, extra cash.

"I'm actually hoping mine sells 'cuz I need gas for my car," Goodman said. "I spend my money on gas and tea and bagels."

Crystal Hansen, 17, likes to use her paintbrush to be heard. She added lavender paint to a stool awash in thickly textured whites, blues, purples and grays.

"When you're a teenager, they (adults) don't really listen to your words," said Hansen. "One way to have your ideas and voice heard is through image."

Then, she added jagged pieces of a mirror to the bottom of the stool.

Sitting in the outdoor courtyard with three other artists, Mickey Leclerc etched a detailed red drag-on against a black background she had painted on the seat of her stool. Leclerc likes to use her paintbrush to tame her emotions.

"It's, like, an outlet for feelings," said Leclerc, 17.

Lauren Mosinska, 16, agrees. She puts a lot of herself into her creations. She pulled out a stool painted with a face, both eyes closed, and explained that it's a painting of herself, the eyes closed to signify she still has much to learn in life.

"I made it way too personal," Mosinska said. "Now I don't want to sell it."

Another of Mosinska's pieces is a coffee table done in fiery red hues cooling to shades of blues. Mosinska said it's to signify the "cool, collected" side of people, and the fire that burns inside. She adhered little pieces of mirror on the side of the table as a symbol to urge people to look more closely to find things where they'd least expect them.

"You'd expect the mirror to be on top," Mosinska said. "Children look at smaller things, but adults don't like to look at smaller things because they think they know everything."

McKinney gives some instruction in art technique and how to give useful critiques, but "mostly I'm just getting out of their way," McKinney said.

Ana Matta, 17, likes it that way.

"I like the fact that you get to paint whatever you want," said Matta as she painted an orange flower with lime-green background onto the seat of a chair. "It's stress-free."

McKinney gave the young people some basic art instruction in color, form, movement and the critical process of self and peer evaluation of pieces of art, given in a constructive manner.

"Instead of saying, `This is good, or bad,' we say, `This is just not working for me,' " McKinney explained. "That's important, because there is no good or bad - just individual preferences."

Hardesty scrutinized a black circle she was painting into the seat of a chair.

"I just can't seem to get it straight," Hardesty said. "It's, like, skinny, and then fat."

Hansen looked at and said, "I kinda like it," then moved back to her own project while doing a little dance to the music playing over the speakers.

The reasons the teens use secondhand furniture as their canvases are twofold: It sells better than two-dimensional art, and furniture is what's used in YA/YA, the New Orleans group that served as the model for the program.

"There's a lot of two-dimensional art out there," said Judy Adams, who helped Lidz found Teen Dreams. "Functional art serves as a way for young people to readily sell their art."

Furniture comes to the studio as donations, or from thrift stores or garage sales.

YA/YA was founded by a painter named Jana Napoli in New Orleans in 1988. She encouraged her high school students to paint their dreams and fears on secondhand furniture. The work of the group became so popular, a book of their work was published and they were covered by more than 80 publications, including Life, Vogue, Fortune and New York magazines.

YA/YA members have traveled all over the world. They created 582 slip covers for the chairs in the United Nations General Assembly Room in honor of the UN's 50th birthday.

Teen Dreams' co-administrators have high hopes for this group, too. The teens already are dabbling in other types of art such as mosaic, and Adams hopes they can eventually learn to paint wearable art like clothing.

Adams and Lidz both believe in art as preventive therapy for teens at risk. Adams is a dancer; Lidz, a visual artist. Adams is a social work supervisor in the Ventura County Children and Family Division of the Public Social Services Agency; Lidz is a social worker for Children and Family Services.

As for why she got involved in Teen Dreams, Lidz said, "I'm an artist, and I really believe strongly in the power our youth have if they move in the right direction."