Toys are often among a person's earliest memories. They inspire wonder, drive imagination and even help develop skills. Now, a new exhibit about toys, showcased through mixed-media artwork, is generating the same sort of energy at the Westport Arts Center.

"Toy Stories," curated by Helen Klisser During, features the work of 33 artists, each of whom worked with a toy theme. The exhibit opened Friday night with a cocktail reception.

"With all the exhibitions, we look to tell a story," said During. "And like all the exhibitions, the first day is the wrapped present. It really takes the duration of the exhibition and people's reactions and take-aways to get a full picture."

Toys, she said, "are age-old, representing innocence and play. They can be basic or very complex. They can trigger deep psychological memories but also imagination."

A range of media is represented in the exhibit -- from photos and sculpture to paintings and video. "There's something for everyone -- play, fantasy, childhood, memory, politics," added During.

Among the featured works were: Christian Faur's "Melodie," a portrait constructed from the tips of 10,000 hand-cast encaustic crayons; Margaret Roleke's "Barbie in the War Zone," comprising dozens of plastic toy soldiers affixed to a fabric background; Nina Bentley's "Born in the NRA," a sculpture of three cherubs holding machine guns, and Chris Dimmos' "Sudden Death Typewriter Table Hockey" constructed from two 1963 Olivetti typewriters.

The exhibit struck a chord with many attendees, many of whom took turns competing at a full-size foosball table set up for interaction. While enjoying the fun, some were inspired to recount favorite childhood toys.

"Some of my favorite toys as a kid were a Lionel train set and a water rocket," said Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. "I haven't thought about those in years."

WAC Board Chairman Lance Lundberg remembered his Erector set. "You could put to work a lot of ingenuity," he said. "I like to assemble things. It seems there were more mechanically oriented toys when I was a kid than now. The exhibit here goes beyond to show how broad the definition of play and toys is."

Joe Pucci, principal at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, the overall exhibit sponsor, said, "I was a big G.I. Joe fan and, of course, had Matchbox cars. It's fun to have these pieces of art evoke certain memories."

Perhaps none were more inspired than the featured artists themselves, like Westporter Miggs Burroughs, with two lenticular pieces in the exhibit titled "Cracker Jackie Winkie."

"I enjoyed Tinker Toys as a kid," he said. "I liked Legos when my kids got into them, too, and toy guns, inspired by Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy. This show is a great opportunity to pretend to be a kid again."

"Toy Stories" is on exhibit through March 18 at the Westport Arts Center, 51 Riverside Ave. For more information call 203-222-7070 or visit www.westportartscenter.org.