CALS Scrapbook--Youssef Asar

By Brian Meyer

Youssef Asar’s studio is a renovated kitchen in the basement of Curtiss Hall. That’s fitting, because this place is a feast for the senses.

Enter the studio of the George Washington Carver Artist-in-Residence and breathe deep. The place is redolent of oil paint, as well as cloves, nutmeg and cardamom, three ingredients in his strong coffee. From a cassette player, the great Egyptian diva Om Kalthoum spins a tale in Arabic. 

Asar, in jeans streaked with green paint, tempts visitors with a pan of sweet, flaky baklava. He says, “If you leave anything on your plate, my daughter will never get married.” But Asar, you have no daughters. He laughs.

But it’s Asar’s art that centers your attention. Propped against the wall are two eight-by-six foot canvases. One is a portrait of George Washington Carver. The other is the third in a triptych that tells Carver’s life story in agricultural and spiritual symbols. The colors are eye-poppingly rich. The imagery is vivid and compelling.

Asar, an Egyptian painter and art historian, arrived in Ames in the fall of 1998 at the invitation of David Topel, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Iowa State University was beginning a year long celebration of Carver, the African-American teacher and scientist (and artist) who is one of ISU’s most famous agricultural alums and faculty members.

“When I met Asar during a trip to Cairo several years ago, I was impressed by his interest and ability to tie agriculture and art together,” says Topel. “That stimulated the idea of bringing him here as the Carver artist-in-residence.” Asar’s appointment was sponsored by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Design, ISU Extension and Outreach and the ISU Office of External Affairs.

Asar arrived at Iowa State knowing little about Carver. He researched Carver’s life and was fascinated.

“To me, Carver’s greatness was that he was a humanitarian,” Asar says. “He was a great scientist, yes, but how to be human, that’s what he can teach us. We want our students to be great achievers, but we want them to be outstanding human beings, too.”

Peaceful is how Asar paints Carver. In one mural, Carver’s hands reach up and become leafy branches. In another, his hands offer up peanuts and sweet potatoes. In the third mural, Carver transforms into the tree of life.

Asar is leaving a permanent impression on campus, artistically and personally. The first two panels of his Carver triptych hang in the Food Sciences Building, to be joined by the third panel and the Carver portrait next year. He’s painted many watercolors of the Iowa landscape that have been shown on campus and at field days on ISU research farms around the state. He’s painted portraits, including one of Lauren Christian, the late ISU professor. His murals were prominently featured at the dedication this year of a USDA building named for Carver in Beltsville, Maryland.

Asar has taught painting to ISU students, many of whom have become close friends. “His contributions to students have been very special,” Topel says. “He works with them in a very professional,
understanding way.”

Iowa also will leave a lasting impression on the artist. “The most beautiful colors — blazing, blazing!— I’ve ever seen are during the fall in Iowa,” Asar says. “Also, I like very much the whirling shapes of the hills in southwest Iowa. But the best experience I’ve had here is the friendships. The people here have become like family to me. I feel completely at home. It’s a beautiful feeling.”

The link between agriculture and art is no great leap for Asar. “The history of art is closely linked to ancient people who settled down to farm. When you settle down, you begin to observe nature and to discover your faith. When I paint, I gratify nature and the creator in his creation. So, agriculture is the base for all the arts.”

His words echo the painted ones found on a mural in Iowa State’s library by another renowned artist who connected Iowa agriculture and art — Grant
Wood. The words, a Daniel Webster quote, are: “When tillage begins, other arts follow.”