NEW YORK—At lunchtime, Winfred Rembert traded stories with quilters in Harlem. In the evening, he posed with a state senator on his lap at a wine-and-cheese reception on the Hudson River, as the celebrated Newhallville folk-art leather carver got into the swing of a nascent national tour.
Rembert, a 66-year old self-taught artist who learned to tool leather in prison, left his home studio on New Haven’s Newhall Street last week to spend the weekend on tour with a documentary about his life and to see his art hang in a prominent setting along the Hudson River.
The trip spanned two worlds and two audiences rapt by the gregarious artist’s tales of his life in the segregated rural South. Rembert’s leather carvings, dyed in bright colors, depict his youth in the juke joints and cotton fields of Cuthbert, Georgia, the horror of surviving a near-lynching, and the toil of seven years on a chain gang.
The world is finally catching on to the brilliance of a man who has worked quietly for years, day and night, in his humble Newhallville home.
(And who, it turns out, has an otherworldy singing voice. Click on the play arrow above for a sample.)
Rembert began the week in Washington, D.C., where he spoke at a screening in the Library of Congress and tried, unsuccessfully, to deliver a hand-carved handbag to Michelle Obama. He has upcoming appearances planned in Los Angeles; Atlanta; Salem, Mass.; and Montgomery, Alabama.
On Thursday he rolled up to Harlem’s Pelham Fritz Recreation Center with his wife, Patsy, a bus driver for the Hamden schools. He wore jeans, sandals, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a signature tan fedora.
In the other room, a half-dozen women from a quilting club awaited him.
Janie Alston (pictured) showed off “The Black Odyssey,” a quilt she put together in memory of her son, who died at the age of 16. She plans to hang it in an exhibition Tuesday in honor of Black History Month.
About 14 people, mostly African-American women, gather at the center on Tuesdays and Thursdays to quilt together. She and a few other ladies worked on quilts Thursday as other seniors ate lunch nearby.
They all took a break at 1 p.m. to walk into a simple, painted cinder block room, for a free, public screening of Rembert’s new documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, directed by Vivian Ducat.
Rembert sat down next to Robert “Poonk” Carter, his best childhood friend. Rembert, whose nickname was Pike, used to dance with Poonk in a troupe along with a tall friend whom they called “Sister Boy.” They reunited after 40 years through the making of the documentary. Carter flew up from Georgia Thursday to see his friend in his new role as a New York artist and storyteller extraordinaire.
About four dozen people sat down behind them to see the film.
Poonk and Pike watched as scenes from their lives flashed on the screen.
In the documentary, Rembert leads the film crew back through the now-abandoned haunts of his youth, down Hamilton Avenue and to the “Colored Folk Corner,” where you catch up with your relatives on Sundays. He talked about Mary Douglas, who used to deliver babies for eight dollars, even though no one ever paid her in full.
“Do you remember her?” Rembert asked his buddy.
Carter issued a few mmm-hmms as Rembert told his life story. Rembert was given away as a 3-month-old baby to his great-aunt, Lillian, who would drag him with her on a sack while she toiled in the cotton fields.
“Cotton picking is just like prison,” Rembert said in the film. Sometimes, you’d work all day on one row and never get to the end. He worked so much as a kid that he went to school only one or two days a week. In those days, he said, blacks had to go through separate entrances to bars and restaurants, and were routinely humiliated and beaten by whites.
The film recounts a story that still haunts Rembert’s dreams.
It begins when Rembert decided to take part in the civil rights movement as a teenager. In 1965, at the age of 19, he headed to Americus, Georgia, join a protest. At that time, police handed out guns not only to law enforcement, but to white civilians. At some point, Rembert recalled, “people started shooting at us.”
As the protesters fled, Rembert, pursued down a side street by two white men with guns, hopped into a car with keys in it and fled. The law caught up with him and held him in jail in Cuthbert without any charges.
After a year in jail, Rembert did what his mother bade him never to do—rebel against the white man.
He stuffed a roll of toilet paper into the toilet in his cell, prompting the deputy sheriff to respond to a flood in his cell. When the man kicked him, Rembert wrestled him to the ground, and won.
“I took his gun. I locked him in the cell,” and fled.
The room grew tense as he recounted what happened when the law caught up with him.
Rembert recalled being thrown in the trunk of a car by law enforcement. He was driven into the woods, hung by a noose from his feet, beaten from all sides, then stabbed in the genitals by the deputy sheriff from whom he’d escaped.
“I was bleeding like a pig,” Rembert said.
He barely escaped with his virility, and his life, when one of the white men told the deputy sheriff to stop.
Instead, they decided to lead him through his hometown in shackles so they could “make an example” of him. He got a 27-year sentence for car theft, pointing the gun, and robbery.
The near-lynching continues to torture Rembert with recurring dreams and insomnia. He started work on an ambitious series about the episode that was supposed to span 15 panels, but he never got past the third panel because the subject was so painful, according to the film.
As he listened to himself tell the story in the rec center Thursday, Rembert nervously bounced his knee. He let out a big sigh when the story ended.
“Oh, Lord,” he said.
He then served seven years on the chain gang, ruled by a ruthless “bossman” who would hit you with a shovel if you stepped out of line.
He recalled getting placed in a “sweat box” for 14 days, a small enclosed space where “you can’t stand up, and you can’t sit down.”
“The chain gang is the place where all dignity is taken from you,” Rembert said. “You’re not a human any more.”
Rembert emerged a free man after seven years and married Patsy, a farm girl he had met on the chain gang. They moved north shortly after, in pursuit of a job as a longshoreman in Bridgeport. The family moved to New Haven in 1989 when the Bridgeport projects where they lived became too dangerous.
The film recounts how Rembert began to carve his stories into leather in 1996. His eight kids served as his marketing wing, sporting his art on medallions and jackets at New Haven schools. A few figures in the art world lent him key support, including Jock Reynolds at the Yale University Art Gallery, who gave him his first show in 2000.
After delving deep into hardship, the film ends on a triumphant note: Rembert, who left his hometown in chains, holds court at a reception in his honor in Albany, Georgia, and declares he has returned home “as a somebody.”
In the film, Rembert notes one frustration—that most of the people who have shown interest in his art have been white.
“I would love to be recognized by my own people, but I seem to be recognized by white people,” he said.
As the lights came up in the rec center, the Harlem quilters sought to prove him wrong. Several proclaimed they were “overwhelmed” by his work and his life. They gathered around for autographs, asked advice, and pleaded him to visit their classrooms and churches.
“He’s made me so proud to know he’s gone this far, with all those barriers,” said Janie Alston, 64, after Rembert signed her black-and-white flyer advertising the event. “Think about it,” she said—“He’s but one, and there are many. And the story grows.”
“I was honored to be in his presence,” said fellow quilter Judy Sawyers (center left in photo), a 64-year-old lifelong Harlemite. “He does it on leather and we try to do it on quilting.” Quilting played a key role in the Underground Railroad, she noted, when safe homes would hang coded quilts to indicate runaway slaves were welcome there.
One questioner asked how black people are supposed to afford his work when it sells for $25,000 a piece. Rembert replied he sells some smaller pieces for as little as $500—and “if you talk to me, we can work something out.” He pledged to speak to any audience that invites him.
Sawyers left as a convert. She his work inspired her—and “I’m glad he brought it back to his people.”
“When I go home, I’m going to talk and talk” about Rembert’s work, Sawyers declared, “and everybody’s going to know.”
Up The River
After two hours in Harlem, Rembert got into a rental car and headed up toward the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, where 40 pieces of his work now hang. First, he had to stop at the Hampton Inn to change into a clean white shirt and white pants.
Around 6 p.m., guests walked up the steps to the museum, which sits on a hill overlooking the river. They nibbled on olives and sipped glasses of wine at an invite-only opening party for the exhibition, which runs until May 6.
Christina Mandara (at left in photo) and Mary Jean Marsico, a superintendent of schools in Rockland County, perused a Rembert catalog in the gift shop.
Rembert entered the museum and quickly set to work signing catalogs, which were selling for $20 a piece.
Then he pulled up a chair to the center of the action, right near the entrance, and sat down. A waiter offered him a tray of thin slices of steak nested on little, waffle-shaped potato chips. He declined, opting for a glass of water and a Coke.
Art collectors kept him busy, posing for photos and applauding his work. Rembert gleamed in the spotlight, drawing guests toward him with gregarious charm.
When it came time for their photo, Rembert surprised two of his early supporters—Sharon McBlain and Nancy Lewis—by pulling them onto his left and right knees.
When he came across another collector, Rembert pulled her toward him with such enthusiasm that he accidentally kissed her on the mouth.
State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who represents the Yonkers area, was not exempt from the familial treatment. He quickly began to pull the politician onto his capacious knee. She resisted—“are we really doing this?”—then gave in.
“You’re probably the only person who’s got a photo with me on their lap,” she remarked as she got up.
Rembert commenced a tour of his work around 7 p.m.
“Let’s go, y’all!” he declared.
Lonnie Garris, Jr. (pictured), of New Haven and three dozen other devotees followed Rembert down the stairs to the exhibition. Garris, a longtime principal of James Hillhouse High School, got to know Rembert as the father of four students there.
Garris said he first saw Rembert’s work when the artist, an active parent, brought in a leather carving to school to show him. Garris recognized there was “something special” there. He bought one of Rembert’s first pieces in 1997. Garris said he now has six Remberts hanging in his Beaver Hills family room—including one piece he commissioned of his family’s backyard store in Virginia, where Lonnie Garris, Sr., would sell “tobacco, snuff, loaf bread and popsicles” to an elderly neighborhood crowd.
“I don’t know why anyone would not devote an immediate appreciation for this work and this subject matter,” Garris said.
He said Rembert appears to be better recognized outside New Haven than in his own community.
“Someone said, ‘You can’t be a prophet in your own land,’” Garris reflected.
Rembert said Thursday that while he has spoken at suburban Connecticut classrooms and now to audiences across the nation, he still has never been invited to speak to kids at a New Haven school—something he’s long wanted to do.
Garris said he had hoped to get Rembert inside his school to talk to students—but he ended up retiring in 2010 and it never happened.
Rembert led the group past his works, recounting stories of the pool shark Raincoat Red, of peering in a church window to watch the “holy-rollers” dance, and of many long days in the cotton fields. He skipped the room with the more painful memories—those of the chain gang and of a lynching he witnessed as a child. That room is kept behind a door so that school groups can opt out.
Towards the end of the tour, Rembert paused to sling his arms around two of his biggest supporters, Litchfield art collector Peter Tillou and New York gallery owner Warren Adelson.
“Peter is the guy [who] somewhat discovered me,” he told the crowd, enveloping the elderly man with his left arm. “Peter came into my life and said to me, ‘Winfred, I’m going to buy every picture you make and I’m going to make you somebody in the art world.’” Tillou supported Rembert for the first six years of his career, when he struggled to make a living.
Rembert used his right arm to squeeze Adelson, who gave him his first New York show at the Adelson Galleries in 2010.
As he stopped in front of a piece called “Amazing Grace,” in which musical bars from the song are overlaid over images of workers picking cotton, Rembert made an offer: “Can I sing one bar of it?” (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to watch.)
“Absolutely,” came the reply.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” Rembert belted out into the gallery.
“Don’t hurt ‘em!” teased his childhood friend, Poonk, as Rembert paused to take another big breath.
“I once was lo-o-ost,” Rembert sang to his crowd of admirers, “oh, but now I’m found.”