Canadian conceptual artist George Sawchuk, whose first show in the United States opened yesterday at Gallery K, became an artist the hard way. A school dropout at about age 13 (his exact date of birth is uncertain), he was working as a laborer on a construction project in 1956 when a pile of steel beams fell on him and crushed his leg. He spent the next dozen years in constant pain, while doctors tried various techniques to save the leg. Finally, it was amputated in 1968 and he received a wooden leg. Completely untrained as an artist, he used his painfully found leisure to acquire the new skills that have been attracting the attention of the art world in Canada, where he has had two museum shows and several gallery shows.

Marc Moyens, co-owner of the gallery here, first met him about nine years ago through his friend, Ian Baxter, a pioneer of conceptual art, who was a neighbor of Sawchuk. "Ian told me, 'There is a fellow across the street who is rather amazing; let's go and see him,' " Moyens recalls. "So we went over to a small house in the middle of the pine trees--and what he was doing, without any training or study, was conceptual art. We hit it off immediately. He's a very warm person, very kind and very open--an ordinary laborer but wonderfully articulate, raised from his childhood on two books, the Bible and Das Kapital. And now, he's a member of the Canadian Academy of Arts."

Sawchuk sums up his new career more simply: "Brains in the head is okay. . . . But brains in the hands--that's good, too."