With the confidence of a practiced storyteller, Winfred Rembert turned on a faucet of words, and they poured over us. Squeezed into a wooden armchair much too small for his enormous bulk, Rembert was enthusiastic about relating the details of his early life to two strangers.
His story, like those of many African-American self-taught artists from the rural South, begins with disinheritance (“My mother gave me away when I was three months old.”), poverty (“Not having anything, no Christmas, no money.”), lack of education (“I didn’t have a learning disability. I just didn’t get it.”), discrimination (“Mama was afraid of white people.”), violence and a lot of anger (“But I’m past all that now.”).
Rembert was born in 1945 in Americus, Ga., where cotton and peanut farming were the main activities. Now, at 58, he lives in New Haven, Conn., where he is a guest lecturer at Yale University, a long way from his experience of growing up in the cotton fields and, later, as a hardened prisoner in Georgia. The medium he uses -- large sheets of tanned leather into which he carves pictures, then paints them with indelible leather dyes -- expresses his colorful, if often painful, memories. As the result of a small exhibition in New York City at Cavin-Morris Gallery in 2002, an exhibition with Georgia artist Hale Woodruff at Yale University Art Gallery and a recent exhibition, Indelible Images, at the Hand Workshop in Richmond, Va., Rembert’s career appears ready to take off.
A natural showman, the charismatic artist can regale an audience non-stop. With the timing of a professional comic, Rembert knows how to get the laughs as well as the gasps of shock.
“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.
“In 1951, when I was about 13 or 14, I quit picking cotton and potatoes. I dropped out of school. I couldn’t read or write at the 10th -grade level. I was trying to get into civil rights, protesting. I went to Albany, Ga., to work on civil rights right after the Charlie Hopkins case. I was so tied up about it. He shot into a crowd of white people and killed one.
“Another time, when I was living in Cuthbert, Ga., a sit-in got out of hand. The police came, and I ran. There was a car with the keys in it, and I took it. They got me for car theft, and I went to prison. I escaped after one year, but it wasn’t planned. I flooded the toilet [in the cell], and the deputy sheriff beat me and got out his gun. He was going to shoot me, so I took his gun and locked him in my cell. I went to a Civil Rights house for help, but they called the police. A hundred people came after me and hung me up by the feet. They castrated me, and I could have bled to death. They didn’t really castrate me though, because I have eight children now!
“I was sentenced to a year more in jail. I learned to read and write in prison. Some of the other prisoners had been schoolteachers, and they taught me.”
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.
“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.
“No one wants to associate with you [when you don’t do well in school]. You’re in a world by yourself. I still think of Mama in everything I do, even when I was a bad person. She said things I still remember, how to do things. But she didn’t want to send me to school.
“There was some older gentlemen who hung around the pool hall on Hamilton Avenue. They would say to me, ‘You’ve got potential.’ But I was running around, making waves. I made speeches, but nobody wanted to hear me. Everybody was scared in those days.
“You can take a hundred people and cram them in a cup and keep them there for 50 years. All they would know is what goes on in that cup and the other people in there.
“Mama was afraid of white people. When I was a little boy, I knew something was wrong. We would go to the Wilson Brothers Store, owned by three white men. They would say about me to Mama, ‘He ain’t gonna be worth a damn, is he?’ Mr. Wilson once said to me, ‘Come here, nigger. Can you whistle?’ But my mouth was dry, and I couldn’t whistle. Mr. Wilson turned to his two little boys: ‘I told you a nigger can’t whistle ‘cause his lips is too thick.’
“I wanted it to be better for myself. I knew I didn’t have the power to make people do things.”
But back to prison life:
“In prison, I finally got a doctor [to see me] after three months. They put me in shackles and walked me through black neighborhoods to send a message to other blacks. I was sentenced to 27 years [and four years suspended] on these charges: escape from jail (five years), pointing a pistol (one year), robbery of a pistol (20 years) and larceny or car theft (five years). I was sent to Reidsville, Ga., and I was not a model prisoner. The judge told me I’d never hit a white man again, and right after I went in they integrated the prisons so I hit every white man I saw. To survive in prison, you have to be a mean person. I served seven years.
“I was there two years, then shipped to a chain gang in Leesburg, Ga. I kept being sent to the sweat box, where you stay in a crouch all the time. You can’t sit or stand up. They can keep you for 14 days, max. I was in the sweat box 330-plus times in the seven years I was there. You gotta be a tough guy, mentally and physically. I felt like I had to be a thousand people. I’m pulling around a ball and chain. If a bee stings me or a snake bites me, I have to take it. Ain’t nowhere to go. I was able enough to endure and hoping one day I’d be free.
“I found some well-educated black men in prison, and they taught me to read and write. One guy, a trusty, was making leather things, and I watched how he did it and made some of my own. I looked through the bars at him working, and I thought I could do it because I’m artistic. I made wallets with a big rose in the center.
“I’m the first guy whose wife run from him when she met him. I met my wife [Patsy Gammage] while I was in prison. I was sent to build a bridge near her house and saw her hanging clothes in the yard. She was 15. I asked her for a drink of water, and she ran in the house and told her father a prisoner was in the yard asking for a drink of water. He came out with a shotgun, but I talked to him and finally he gave me a drink. After that, I made excuses everyday to go back and get a drink of water. Before long, they was giving me lemonade and ice tea.
“I started piling dirt in the middle of the road where the school bus would go by so the bus would have to stop and I could get a chance to see her. But she never got off the bus. I even ran over their mailbox with my machine. Then we started corresponding through the mail. After I got out, we got married five years later, and now we have eight kids. We been together 30 years.
“In prison, I wrote a letter every day and dropped it on the ground. I hoped somebody would see it. One day, a letter came for me. It said, ‘You’re going home in 10 days.’ I don’t know what happened, but I think somebody read my letter and helped me.
“When I got out of prison, I was a heavy equipment operator, ran a bulldozer. I also worked as a janitor and in a liquor store.
“At home with my family, we would sit around the kitchen table eating, and I would tell the children stories from my life. My wife said, ‘You should put your stories on leather.’ At first I was doing copies of other people’s work, and my friend Phil [McBlain] sold the first painting and gave me the money. I said, ‘Maybe my wife is right.’ Phil owns a bookstore and hangs my work in his store. [Rembert was 52 years old when he made his first paintings.]
“All this work is about people I knew growing up, my memory of these people. I created a place I remembered. One of my paintings is of a place that used to be called Nigger Corner. I cleaned it up. I called it Colored Folks Corner, where everybody went to hang out and dance. If you think you can dance, there’s nothing to stop you from dancing.
“I hope Mama is looking down to see my work. She didn’t get to see it. She died in 1978.”
Rembert walked through the Hand Workshop gallery and explained his paintings.
“This painting is about Miss Lydie, who had a baby in the cotton field and she went right back to work. Those was tough ladies in those days. Put the baby in an apron for the rest of the day. There’s a lot of history in black life. Movies leave out a lot of stuff. I’ve never seen a documentary that showed it like it was.
“I want to tell the truth with this art. I’ve got so many stories to tell, I’ll never get to tell them all, but I’ll do the best I can. I said I wasn’t going to make any more cotton-picking pictures, but I keep on doing it.
“When I was a baby, my Mama told people watching me to hang a white sheet on the line if anything happen to me while she was in the field picking cotton. It was like a primitive cell phone.
“Raincoat Red, from Columbus, Ga., was the best pool player in the world. As soon as I heard that, I had to play him. We played eight-ball, but he ran so many racks [that] I never got to play. He was out the door.
“Did you all ever hear about Doll’s Head Baseball? We played with a doll’s head for the ball and paper bags for the gloves.
“Now I can fully say that I’m an artist. People like the work. But I don’t recommend that anybody go to prison for seven years to learn a trade. But I’m a lucky guy. I learned how to read and write, and I do pretty good.”
Rembert demonstrated to the crowd the technique he uses to hand-tool leather, using his favorite tools on small, sample squares.
“Whatever picture I come up with, I draw it on paper first. I want it in my archives. I work longer on the drawing than I do on the leather. If leather is wet, you make any mark, and it comes right out. Once you put it down, you can’t make a mistake at all. I use a swivel knife to turn corners. The main tool for leather work is called a toe, and a heel is used for pounding. I used to work all night long. I do the pounding on a big piece of slate that absorbs the sound. I’ve probably done miles and miles of this.
“People don’t have flat faces. This tool makes the nose stick out and the eyes sink in. When it’s flat, it don’t look like nothing. If you’re doing people, you gotta make it like it is. Every human being in the world, your eyes are dead level with the top of your ears and your mouth is dead level with the bottom of your ears. Just keep that in mind.
“You can throw the paintings in the bathtub overnight, and it won’t hurt them because that’s not paint on it; it’s dye.
“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.”
Rembert walked around the gallery again, explaining the rest of his pictures. Each one had a story.
“Miss Mary Douglas, the midwife, charged $8 for a delivery. If you owed her money, the other two midwives in town wouldn’t deliver your baby.
“Papa Screwball, the best dancer in the world, had only one leg. He would slide down the floor on one leg. He had a limp when he walked but not when he danced. He talked about the big-butt woman, but that was his thing.
“People don’t always believe my stories. Some of this stuff is far-fetched.
“I love [the paintings of] Charles White. I’m just learning about Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. People compare my work to them,” Rembert said.
Phil and Sharon McBlain, from Hamden, Conn., say they have discouraged Rembert from looking at the work of other artists because he is a natural copyist. Certainly, his subjects have the rhythm, repetition and color found in Bearden’s collages. His figures often reach toward heaven or are grouped in compositions similar to those of Lawrence. But, in fact, Rembert came to his images independently. The story-telling aspect is common to all four artists. However, the hardship he imposes on himself by carving his narratives into sheets of leather sets Rembert apart.
“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.
He does seem to be enjoying 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. The lively painted and carved figures of cotton pickers, pool hustlers, midwives, preachers, dancers and prison inmates prance rhythmically across the gleaming leather, and we believe.