Winfred Rembert (Photo by William Oppenheimer)
A self-taught artist, Winfred Rembert grew up in the 1950's working in the cotton fields of Cuthbert, Georgia. He was arrested after a 1960’s civil rights march and survived a near-lynching before serving seven years in jail. It was in jail, creating wallets next to another inmate, that he first learned to hand-tool leather. Years later, at the suggestion of his wife, Rembert integrated storytelling and the tales of his youth into tableaux on sheets of tanned leather.
Now, at 58, he lives in New Haven, Conn., where he is a guest lecturer at Yale University, a far cry from his early life in the cotton fields and in prison.
Rembert often begins his pictures with drawings, in an effort to work out detailed patterns. He retains each drawing in his archives. When the stories are carved and tooled into the leather, his images take on texture and depth. During the final step, he paints the surfaces in vivid dyes. The final images offer a flamboyant narrative of life in the still-segregated South of the mid-twentieth century.
“I ordered a book called ‘How to Carve Leather,’ but I don’t agree with nothing they do.
“For the paintings, I mount them on Gater Board with non-toxic glue. I put on a varnished surface to protect them from the water. They’re glued down into the frame.”
What's Wrong With Little Winfred
"My mother gave me away at three months to her aunt. She didn’t have no husband. Her mouth was so big she’d run ‘em off, my aunt said. My aunt’s granddaughter lived with us, and I thought for a long time that she was my sister. Mama, that’s what I called her, was not big on education, but what she was big on was work. I went to school very little. At six years old, I was picking cotton for fifty cents or a dollar a day. Mama could pick a lot of cotton. She got $2 for every 100 pounds she’d pick. I worked as a field hand digging potatoes, too."
Rembert’s education had been a source of frustration, and he attended school intermittently between periods of working as a field hand.
“You feel like a dummy,” he said. “They used me to feed the heater. The teacher never called on me. She didn’t want to embarrass me. I thought I couldn’t learn."
Doll's Head Baseball
“I made my own toys. Other kids bought the toys I made. I made riding things -- three-wheel bicycles, wagons and pop guns, bows and arrows. I had to do that to get some kind of joy. I made things by not having anything -- no Christmas, no money. I had my toys. It meant a lot to me to create things. I was good at drawing, too."
Watermelons on a Saturday Afternoon
“Ideas crowd in on me so much I almost died last year. I’m in prison every night or else running for my life. I can’t sleep. I work with people in prison now and some right out of prison. But this is fun,” said Rembert.
These days, Wifred enjoys his life -- making art, raising a family . . . freedom. He has a gentle sweetness and a kind demeanor that contradict the stories he tells of going AWOL from the Army, escaping from jail, being a trouble-maker, surviving a near-lynching and belonging to a chain gang. “I’ve put all that behind me now,” he says when questioned about his seeming lack of anger and the disparity of his present life and his past. In a special event, Adelson Galleries and Peter Tillou Works of Art present the paintings of Winfred Rembert this spring. The exhibition, taking place April 7 through May 28, 2010, will be Rembert’s first major solo exhibition in New York. It will feature lively painted and carved figures of cotton pickers, pool hustlers, midwives, preachers, dancers and prison inmates prancing rhythmically across the gleaming leather.
Winfred Rembert is illustrator and subject of the book, "Don't Hold Me Back: My Life and Art" written by contributing author, Nikki Giovanni (Contributor)
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