As Winfred Rembert’s career takes off, the Newhallville leather carver is heading to the nation’s capital to present a new documentary about his life—and, he hopes, deliver a special present for Michelle Obama.
Rembert, who’s 66, is a self-taught artist who works out of a humble home on Newhall Street, carving memories of the segregated, rural South into leather. The images recount his youth picking cotton and sneaking into juke joints in Georgia in the 1940s and 50s—and of the seven years he served on a chain gang.
Now Rembert is telling the next chapter of that story—how a man who learned to tool leather in prison has emerged as an artist on a national platform. The story is captured in a documentary that premiered in October.
All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, won a silver plaque in last year’s Chicago International Film Festival and is set to be screened in Harlem on Feb. 9 and at Yale sometime in May.
The film came after Rembert had the first big break of his career in 2010, when the New York City Adelson Galleries exhibited 45 pieces of his work. Pieces in that show sold for $12,000 to $35,000 each and put Rembert on a national scene. Click here to read a past Independent story about Rembert and see some of the art he showed there.
Since then, Rembert has traveled to Arkansas, Manhattan and the Hamptons to promote his film and work, selling eight to 10 pieces per screening. His work is hanging in the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, N.Y. He has upcoming appearances planned in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Salem, Mass. and Montgomery, Alabama.
Rembert started producing the carvings in 1996. Finally, he said in an interview Tuesday in his workshop between taps of a yellow mallet, “I’m making a living” as an artist.
Next week, he’ll tell his story on a prominent stage—a theater inside the Library of Congress building in Washington. Invitees to a screening on Monday include staffers on Capitol Hill. U.S. Rep Charlie Rangel of New York, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, plans to give remarks.
Rembert said he doesn’t plan to prepare a speech. He’ll tell the story as he always does—about “a little country boy who came through.”
When he gets on the train Sunday, he’ll bring a present he carved for Michelle Obama. It’s a handbag, carved with an image of cotton-pickers working in a field, overlaid with the bars for the song “Amazing Grace.” He has no prearranged audience with the Obamas, but he’s hoping they show up to see his film—“at least for 70 minutes.”
The film came together at the Adelson Galleries, where Rembert had his first major exhibition of his work. Producer Vivian Ducat showed up there for a benefit for kids with autism—both she and Rembert have children with special needs. She said she was blown away by his artwork, met the artist, and decided the gallery needed a short film telling more of the artist’s story. That grew into a full-length documentary, which she pulled together within one year.
Rembert began to cry Tuesday as he recalled how he felt at the gallery that day. First, he thought of his great-aunt Lillian, who adopted him at the age of 3 months. She used to bring him in basket in the cotton fields and watch over him while she worked.
“This was something she could never have dreamed of,” said Rembert Tuesday, as tears began to flow down his face.
As a baby, Rembert lived with his adopted “Mama” in a house on a plantation in Cuthbert, Georgia. In those days, Mama and the other workers would pick cotton “from can’t to can’t,” he said. Folks used that phrase to describe the long work day on the plantation: When you get up in the morning to head to work, “you can’t see,” and when you come home, “you can’t see, either.”
Second, Rembert said, he thought of the Wilsons, three white brothers who ran a local convenience store in Cuthbert. One day, when Rembert was 6 or 7, his Mama took him into the store.
He recalled the owners ridiculing him.
“Guess what, Lillian?” one of the Wilsons told Mama, pointing to Rembert. “He’ll never be a damn thing in his life, right?”
Mama swallowed her pride and gave the sought-for reply: “Yessir, he’ll never be a damn thing.”
The Wilsons have continued to haunt Rembert and to inspire his artwork.
“I wish they could be here now,” Rembert said. “What would the Wilson brothers say now?”
In making the film, Ducat’s crew got in touch with all of Rembert’s old friends from Cuthbert, he said. They tracked down former dance partners like Eddie “Juicy” Howard. Cuthbert is a town of characters, Rembert declared—“it’s the most characterized town in America.”
To his surprise, he got to reunite with all of these characters in a reception at a public library in Albany, Georgia arranged by Ducat’s crew.
“We was limousined to the party,” Rembert recalled with glee. “We didn’t even know we was going to be limousined.”
He walked up the steps to the library and started hugging everyone.
“It was just great, great, great!” Rembert said, pounding his work table for emphasis.
Last year, Rembert returned for a ceremony where the mayor of Cuthbert presented him with a proclamation and pronounced Sept. 18 “Winfred Rembert Day.”
“Winfred has emerged as a nationally known self-taught artist, using the art of leather tooling to depict memories of his life in Cuthbert,” reads an honorary plaque he now keeps in his workroom. “He refuses to allow the chains of hatred for injustice to hold him a prisoner of the past.”
Rembert recalled that day as a crowning moment in his career.
“Here I am—I left home in chains to the chain gang,” he said. “But I’m coming home as somebody.”
He visited the house where he used to cut grass as a kid—“when I couldn’t come in the front door.” The house is now owned by Andrew College. This time, Rembert said he was invited upstairs to sleep in a suite there for an entire week.
He also visited the plantation where he and Mama used to pick cotton for 1 cent per pound. The fields are no longer used for crops. The home he lived in as a baby is now owned by a white couple, who use it as a summer house. Rembert said the couple, newlyweds, invited him and his six sons into the home for a huge country breakfast of ham and grits.
“It was breakfast for a king,” Rembert recalled. “To have a white woman cooking breakfast for a black man,” he added, is a very unusual thing where he came from.
Rembert said he’s learned a lesson from his newfound fame.
“When people think you’re somebody in this world,” they’ll give you everything. But “when you’re down and out,” they won’t give you a dime.
“It’s backwards,” he said.
Back in his adopted hometown of New Haven, Rembert lives under the radar in a modest, three-story home with two upholstered chairs on a patched-over front porch. He leans over his carvings in a simple front room. His workdays stretch from 7:30 a.m. until 11 p.m., 12 a.m., and sometimes even 2 a.m., he said. A portrait he painted of Paul Newman oversees his work.
Rembert works with 100 tools to carve the cured leather, before painting it, framing it, and putting it up for sale. Click on the play arrow to watch him explain the process in a 2010 interview with the Independent.
Rembert and his wife, Patsy, have lived in the home for 10 years. Rembert said he wants to move out, but he isn’t able to at this time. “If all goes well with the movie,” and with his artwork, he hopes to move out in a couple of years to somewhere safer.
“This neighborhood is good for stray bullets,” he said. He said he regularly has children and grandchildren visiting his home for family barbecues. “I don’t want them catching a stray bullet.”
If he’s able to move out, Rembert said he’d like to keep his Newhall Street home and turn it into a museum, where neighborhood folks could walk in, free of charge, and study his tales of black history.
Rembert said he’d also like to publish a second book.
“I’ve reached the point where I might go down in history like a successful artist,” he said. To help that happen, he said, he’d like to have more of his stories made permanent in a book for adults, following his first book, Don’t Hold Me Back, which was written for children.
Rembert’s works are on display at the Hudson River Museum from Jan. 21 to May 5.
Meanwhile, he continues to churn out new works. No two are the same, he said.
A Hole In The Wall depicts a bar in Rembert’s wife Patsy’s hometown of Ashburn, Georgia. Blacks had to enter the bar from an alleyway and stay out of the checker-board area, which was reserved for whites.
Another depicts Rembert’s baptism in a river. (“That’s how it was done in those days.”)
The works have yet to be claimed, Rembert said—except for one hand-carved handbag. That one is reserved for the nation’s first African-American first lady.
“I’m saving this bag for Michelle,” he said. “She’ll be carrying around some history if she carries this.”