Art: Black Leonardo

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Patriarch George Washington Carver, who hobbles benignly about Tuskegee's campus, is an artist. But he is better known as the greatest Negro scientist alive, the man who pioneered new uses for Southern agricultural products, developed 285 new uses for the peanut, got 118 products, including vinegar, molasses and shoe blacking, from the South's surplus sweet potatoes. In his laboratory he and his assistants also make paints and dyes from the red Alabama clay, the oil of the Alabama peanut, with which he paints the natural phenomena he sees around him: birds, fruit, flowers, mountain vistas.

Dressed in a seamy old coat and patched cotton-sack apron. Patriarch Carver puttered about his memorial museum at Tuskegee last week, unpacking, dusting and hanging his life work as an artist. One of his paintings, a larger-than-life-size picture of a yucca plant, was half a century old, got honorable mention at Chicago's 1893 World's Fair. Of it, he crowed delightedly: "I painted that from my memories of the Western plains. My school-teacher tried to copy it. She failed. She forbade the other pupils to copy it, because she couldn't copy it herself."

By the time he had got them, all hung, Painter Carver had filled the museum's gallery with 71 of his pictures. Many were painted with homemade colors, notably the "Curtis Browns" (shades of brown made from vegetables and magnolias by his assistant A. W. Curtis Jr.). Nearly all were deft, somewhat primly academic depictions of natural phenomena. Visitors, impressed by the simple realism and tidy workmanship of the pictures, found still more to admire in the adjoining collection of handicrafts (embroideries on burlap, ornaments made of chicken feathers, seed and colored peanut necklaces, woven textiles) which the almost incredibly versatile Carver had turned out between scientific experiment and painting.

White-haired, toothless Sage Carver still sticks to his philosophy: "Save everything. From what you have make what you want." His gnarled hands are always busy with bits of string, tinfoil, clay, which he fashions, as he talks, into decorative objects. He is proudest of his picture of four peaches, painted with pigment made of native clay, not as a work of art but because any child, as a result of his researches, should be able to use similar material. "That's just the clay we walk on every day." says he. " Our clays are just as brilliant as the ones the old masters used. Michelangelo used clay like this."

Pleased with his exhibition, George Washington Carver is equally pleased with a brand-new automatic elevator, a present from his admirer Henry Ford, which was installed six weeks ago to save his aged legs (he was born a slave at an unknown date in the 1860s) the 19 painful steps up to his room. "Exquisite elevator," he chortled. "The doctor said he couldn't do much for me as long as I climbed those 19 steps. I'm not very old, but I've been around a long time."