Fresh from a national film tour and dinner with Jimmy Carter, Winfred Rembert is preparing to display his colorful carved-leather scenes of cotton-picking and chain gangs to a hometown audience.
The work of Rembert (pictured), the renowned dyed-leather artist, will hang at Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery at 873 Whalley Ave. until Aug. 31. An opening reception is planned for Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m.
Rembert discussed his upcoming show, and his recent travels, in an interview this week at his humble workshop in his Newhall Street home.
The visit found him sitting on a stool and—as he has for the past 18 years—carving images into leather with an ivory blade. The carvings, which he dyes with bright colors, depict scenes from his early life in the segregated South in the 1940s and ‘50s in rural Georgia, where he worked in the cotton fields, survived a near-lynching, and served seven years on a chain gang. Click here, here and here to read past Independent stories on the self-taught artist, who learned to tool leather from a fellow prisoner.
Click on the play arrow to watch him discuss a piece that depicts his life in the cotton fields, where he began working at age 6.
Rembert, who’s 68, has been sitting on his stool more regularly now that his national tour has died down. After a 2010 solo exhibition in New York City put him on the map, Rembert became the subject of a documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert. The film sent him traveling around the country, from Washington, D.C., to Cleveland to California, to share his life story and his carvings, which now sell for no less than $15,000 a piece.
In perhaps the biggest honor of his career, Rembert headed back to Americus, Georgia, for dinner with former President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. The event last August marked the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement there. The town played a key role in Rembert’s story: In Americus, Rembert stole a car and fled from police after a civil-rights sit-in got out of hand. He was later sent to the chain gang for escaping from prison after a deputy sheriff beat him for flooding his jail cell.
Revisiting Americus last year, Rembert returned to the alley where he had stolen the car. Then he joined a couple-hundred people at a dinner organized by the Americus-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee, Inc.
Rembert and his wife, Patsy, were late to the dinner, he recalled this week. They were quickly escorted to Carter’s table.
“I was looking for you,” Jimmy Carter told him. Carter, a fellow Georgian, had seen the documentary and wanted to meet its protagonist.
Rembert said he can’t remember what he ate—only that he ate it as an honored guest of a former president.
Rembert made the trip back home with his best childhood friend Robert “Poonk” Carter, with whom he was in a five-person dance group. Rembert, whose nickname was “Pikehead” because he looked like a fish when he played basketball, was the choreographer. All of the members are still in touch, except for Albert Bass, who died swimming in a pond when the men were young.
A half-century later, Rembert recounts stories from his native Cuthbert with an emotional intensity that has not faded. He shed tears Monday as he recalled his basketball coach, Mr. Robinson, who took him into his home. When Rembert got caught stealing silver dollars from Robinson’s home, his wife turned him in to the cops. Mr. Robinson showed up at the lockup and covered for his young student.
“I gave him those coins,” Mr. Robinson told police.
Rembert said he never got to thank Mr. Robinson before he died.
Rembert has reconnected with many other people from his life as he has gained acclaim in his hometown. Last November, he was invited to show his work at Andrew College, a private liberal arts school in Cuthbert. Rembert used to cut the grass there for 25 cents. When he returned last fall, the college put him up in a private suite for an entire week.
Rembert said he’s proud of his new role: “I left there going to the chain gang,” he said. “I never dreamed for it to turn out this way.”
Cuthbert has dubbed Sept. 18 Winfred Rembert Day, and has invited him to return in September for more celebrations of his career.
Now Rembert is getting some more recognition in his adopted hometown, New Haven, where Jock Reynolds at the Yale University Art Gallery gave him his first show in 2000.
The 40 pieces in the Kehler Liddell Gallery show—which sell for between $15,000 and $80,000—include The Struggle, which features American celebrities working in the cotton field…
... and “All Me II,” which features a dizzying panoply of chain-gang prisoners.
Rembert said despite his success, he has no plans to leave Newhallville. He is considering moving—but just around the corner to an abandoned house he wants to buy. His dream is to turn his current house into a museum that would display both his artwork and that of neighborhood kids.
Until then, he said he’s happy to be showing his work in an established New Haven gallery.
“When you’re recognized by your home people,” he said, “it makes you feel kind of good.”