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Celebrated Artist, Winfred Rembert, Has Life Chronicled in New Documentary

Life & Style Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 23:02

Winfred Rembert

Courtesy of Ducat Media

Winfred Rembert uses leather and dye to paint pictures of his past.

Cotton Rows

Courtesy of Adelson Galleries

Rembert uses leather and dye to create his art. This painting shows sharecroppers picking cotton in Georgia fields.

Chain gang

Courtesy of Adelson Galleries

This painting depicts Rembert's experiences working on a chain gang.

 "All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert" tells the story of celebrated artist, Winfred Rembert's, return to his hometown in southwest Georgia to show his art. His paintings, made using leather and dye, tell the story of his experiences growing up in a small southern town in the days of Jim Crow.

Feelings of community, family and stories of racism and terror are all documented by Rembert using leather working skills he learned from a fellow inmate during a seven-year stint in prison.

 "You can't use paint on leather because it cracks and peels. Dye soaks into the leather so you don't have that problem. You can bend it, drop it, kick it and abuse it, and it still will keep its form," Rembert says.

His pieces can also be preserved longer than paintings done on canvas, because leather does not rot. Canvas paintings, on the other hand, have to be restored to make them last.

It is important that his work last. Not because it has been recognized by He wants the pieces to last because they reflect pivotal parts of black history.

"You look at the picture, see your history, my history, black folks history," says Rembert.

He grew up in Cuthbert, Ga. The product of his married mother's affair with another man, he was raised by his grandmother. Rembert learned the troubles of racism firsthand. His grandmother often used to tell him, "When white folk do you wrong, let them do it. Don't strike back. That way, you'll live."

One of the most telling parts of "All Me" is when Rembert recalls the cruelty of one of the Wilson brothers, who owned a local store. Once, when he was in their store with his grandmother, one of the Wilsons turned to her and asked, "Is that your grandson?"

 She replied that it was, and he said "And he ain't gonna amount to anything, is he?" Afraid of what would happen if she did not agree, she said that he was right.

Wilson's words stuck with Rembert, but instead of discouraging him, instead it did the opposite. "That's one of the reasons I've continued to do this work," Rembert.

He was motivated by a need to prove people like Wilson wrong and he knew that he could not live a life of sharecropping.

"The cotton field is almost like prison to me," Rembert says in the film. Childcare was almost unheard of for black women at the time, and his grandmother had to bring him along. She used to drag him on the cotton sack. It was there that he first developed a knack for art.

"I was to small to pick, so I used to make things out of whatever I found on the ground – rocks, cans, bottles," says Rembert.

The sharecroppers were paid two cent for every pound of cotton they picked. The plantation owner, trying to make the labor even cheaper, weighed their pickings on a rigged scale. But the sharecroppers had their tricks, too. They poured water on the cotton to make it heavier.

Rembert leapt at the chance to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a teenager, after witnessing such things in his young life. He joined in 1965, and took buses to protests throughout the south. A protest in Americus, Ga. would change his life forever.

Determined to put an end to the protesting, the city called upon the police, and when they felt that was not enough, they gave civilians weapons – some of who were in the Ku Klux Klan.

Things turned violent. The armed men began shooting to break up the protest. Rembert ran to escape the fire, only to find himself being chased by two men with guns.

He found a car with the keys in the ignition, and fled.

They caught up with him, and threw him in jail in Cuthbert. He was held there without charges for a year. The police would not allow his family to visit him.

Unable to stand it anymore, he deliberately made the toilet in his cell overflow. The deputy sheriff came to investigate, and began to beat him. They fought, and Rembert was able to wrestle the keys away from the sheriff and lock him in the cell, instead.

He took off, but was caught in the woods by a mob that forced him into the trunk of their car. When the trunk was opened, he found himself face to face with the sheriff. They beat him, and planned to castrate him, until one of the men had the idea to make an example of Rembert. Instead, hey paraded him around the black neighborhood.

Afterward, Rembert was taken to court. He had no lawyer, there was no jury – they did not even ask him to make a plea. The judge planned to give him a 27-year sentence. He was released in seven years, spending the first year in an institution – during which he would learn to work leather from an inmate named T.J. – and the remaining six in a chain gang.

Rembert immortalizes this and more using leather and dye. Some stories such as his lynching are too painful for him to depict – he had intended to do a 15-part series on that particular memory, but has only been able to complete three.

Nevertheless, Rembert is determined to share the pains of his past in order to inspire black America in the future.

"I think enough black people don't care about their history. Everybody cares about their history but us. We're just happy to be able to ride on the front of the bus," says Rembert.

"All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert" is currently being screened in New York, Montclair, N.J, and Los Angeles.  

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