From a Chain Gang to Art Museums

David Ebony Art

Fig. 1. All of Me by Winfred Rembert (1945–2021). Dye on carved and tooled leather, 30 1/2 by 33 3/4 inches. Except as noted, objects illustrated are © 2023 The Estate of Winfred Rembert /ARS NY; except as noted, photographs courtesy the estate, Fort Gansevoort, New York, and Hauser and Wirth.

The remarkable biographies of some self-taught and outsider artists can sometimes overshadow the art itself, while the lives of others—Henry Darger or Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, to name two examples—are tame or inconsequential compared with the wild abandon of their artworks. One self-taught artist, however, has an exceptional life story, expressed in written form and in equally compelling and adventurous works of art. Born in Americus, Georgia, in the Jim Crow South, with enforced segregation and dire poverty an everyday reality, Winfred Rembert (Fig. 4) was given up by his mother for adoption at three months of age. He was handed over to his great aunt, Lillian Rembert (called Mama), who lived in Cuthbert, Georgia, and raised the child as best she could amidst the often-insurmountable difficulties facing the Black community there.

Largely illiterate, forced by necessity to work in the cotton fields as an adolescent, Rembert in his teens became a rebel and an activist, attracted to the work of the NAACP amid the nascent Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s. Outspoken and charismatic, an impressive singer and dancer, and well known in small-town Cuthbert, he was a frequent target for Black-hating vigilante groups, as well as local authorities. In 1967, following an incident involving a stolen police car, he survived a near lynching—stripped, hung upside-down from a tree branch, beaten, stabbed in the groin, and almost castrated. He was subsequently sent to prison to serve time at hard labor on a chain gang.

Fig. 2. Caint to Caint II, 2016. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 28 1⁄2 by 33 inches.

Many brutal incidents of violence against the Black community in Cuthbert are described in vivid, exacting, and sometimes heart-wrenching detail in Rembert’s 2021 autobiography, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South. These incidents in his life are also conveyed in equally disturbing—and riveting—works of art that he created in his later years. Counterbalancing the episodes of brutal violence, however, in words and images, are humorous anecdotes and warm profiles of local residents that enliven the visual and verbal narratives. They also offer unique insights into daily life in poor Black communities of the rural South.

In 2022 Rembert was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography for the book, which recounts how, beginning at age fifty-one, with the encouragement of his wife, Patsy, he began to convey the story of his life through art and literature. For his visual art, he used an unusual medium: tooled leather painted with dye, using techniques he learned in prison to make decorated leather handbags and wallets that he sometimes sold to prison visitors. Rembert spent seven years on that Georgia chain gang, during which time he met Patsy Gammage, whom he married soon after being released from prison. He moved to the Northeast with her, found work in Connecticut in a shipping yard, settled down for a time, and fathered eight children.

Fig. 3. Flour Bread, 1998. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 23 by 33 1/2 inches.

A knee injury left him suddenly unable to work, and in a desperate effort to support his family, he got entangled with drug dealers peddling heroin, which he himself never used. His activities, nevertheless, eventually led to another, four-year, prison sentence. This time, Patsy was able to convince a judge to release Rembert early, with the promise that he would never again deal drugs. It was a promise that Rembert kept.

He always enjoyed drawing, and now, living in a New Haven housing project, Rembert started to tell his life story via works on paper and on carved and painted leather. Artistically and stylistically, he found inspiration and motivation in a book of 1920s works by Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias, Negro Drawings, that he saw in a local bookstore. The shop’s proprietor, Phil McBlain, became a friend and an early champion and collector of Rembert’s art. McBlain lined the walls of his shop with Rembert’s paintings, an act of kindness and faith in his talent that would transform the budding artist’s life.

Fig. 4. Rembert in 2017. Photograph by Renan Ozturk, courtesy of Hauser and Wirth.

In his autobiography, Rembert recounts how a big break came for him in 2000, when he crashed an invitation-only meeting at the Yale Graduate Club, which planned to donate money to artists in the local community. He brought with him one of his leather panels, which greatly impressed Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, who happened to be at the meeting. Soon after, Reynolds visited the bookstore to see more of Rembert’s work and offered him an exhibition later that year at the Yale University Art Gallery. The success of that show, from which the museum acquired a triptych, launched Rembert’s career as a professional artist.

Since that time, his work has appeared in many prestigious art institutions and galleries throughout the US. In 2011 he was the subject of a feature-length documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert. Earlier this year in New York, the art gallery Hauser and Wirth presented Winfred Rembert: All of Me, a posthumous career survey containing forty-four works, from 1990 to 2018.

The refined, medium-size leather panels included depict the people, places, things, and key events that shaped Rembert’s life, many of which are reproduced and described in his book. Domestic scenes such as Flour Bread have a rather familiar folk art feel, featuring an interior scene of a kitchen with skewed perspective (Fig. 3). The schematically rendered female figure standing at the kitchen table wears a white apron and has a white cloth covering her nose and mouth. At first glance, what might appear as a pandemic-era image turns out to be a portrait of Mama. Rembert explains in the autobiography that his adoptive mother was allergic to flour, but continued to bake bread and cakes for her family despite the fact that the effort made her ill.

Fig. 5. Jeff’s Pool Room, 2003. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 23 1/4 by 35 inches.
Fig. 6. Civil Rights – I Have a Dream, 1999. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 35 1⁄2 by 23 3⁄4 inches.
Fig. 7. Inside the Trunk, 2014. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 22 1⁄4 by 29 1⁄4 inches.

Civil Rights: I Have a Dream is an homage to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights demonstrations that Rembert participated in during the 1960s (Fig. 6). Here, demonstrators holding placards reading “Don’t Hold Me Back,” “I Am Somebody,” and “We March for Education,” are as relevant today as ever. 

Within Rembert’s oeuvre, works such as Jeff’s Pool Room (Fig. 5) and The Curvey (2017), are relatively lighthearted slice-of-life images, youthful recollections of the times when he frequented juke joints and swimming holes in Cuthbert and its environs. The former shows a lively pool hall seen from above. Populated by brightly colored, stylized figures, the carefully constructed composition corresponds to the work of a host of modernist painters, from Jacob Lawrence to Milton Avery. Similarly, the radiant cerulean tones and vibrant swimmers and divers featured in The Curvey bear comparison to works by adventurous painters like Marsden Hartley, or Katherine Bradford in her recent canvases.

Many of Rembert’s works examine in blunt detail the horrific abuse Black citizens suffered at the hands of white figures of authority in the rural South. They often illustrate specific incidents, and some of the most painful episodes he endured in his youth. Inside the Trunk, for instance, depicts the moment in 1967 when Rembert was shoved into the trunk of a car by a white vigilante group wielding clubs, knives, and ax handles, to be driven off to a wooded area where he was to be lynched by the mob (Fig. 7). The Deputy (2001) retells an earlier incident in which he was sadistically beaten by an armed deputy in his jail cell, just before Rembert decided to fight back.

Fig. 8. Patsy and Me, 2000. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 32 by 34 1/2 inches.

Some of the most visually powerful works center on the groups of cotton pickers toiling for scant wages in the blistering Georgia heat. There is a sense of forlorn and tragic beauty in paintings such as Just Another Cotton Field and Caint to Caint II, which show—in rhythmic patterns of line and color—workers dressed in brightly hued garb, with black bags slung over their shoulders, moving through the fields punctuated with touches of pearly white pigment representing cotton bolls (Fig. 2). The title Caint to Caint refers to the long hours that the cotton pickers were made to work—they couldn’t see in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours when trucks brought the workers to the field, and couldn’t see much in the diminished visibility at dusk, when the workers headed home.

Rembert’s images of a chain gang, including Green Field (2014), All Me (2004), All of Me (Fig. 1) and Mixed Rows (A Chain Gang) (Fig. 9), are nearly abstract in the pulsating patterning of black and white markings of the prisoners’ uniforms in each composition. They suggest the synchronized movements of the men working in fields, digging ditches, or breaking rocks. In this series of works, Rembert had a personal, yet conceptual strategy in mind, as he speaks about the necessity of submerging his individuality in order to survive the brutal, communal reality of the chain gang, with prisoners all shackled together in one line.

Fig. 9. Mixed Rows (A Chain Gang), 2013. Dye on carved and tooled leather, 32 by 31 7/8 inches.

All Me—that’s how I painted it. Each person in the picture has a role to play,” Rembert explains in his autobiography. “I didn’t want to play any of the parts, but I had to be somebody. I couldn’t walk around and be nobody, so I became all of them. It’s like I was more than one person inside myself. In fact, if I hadn’t decided to play the all me role in the chain gang, I wouldn’t have made it. Taking that stance—all me—saved me.”*

As a virtuoso painter and author, Rembert is perhaps unique in the world of self-taught art. The visual art he created is as assured and evocative as the emotionally wrought words in his self-told story.

* Winfred Rembert, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, as told to Erin I. Kelly (New York: Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 148.