Winfred Rembert’s striking compositions were made using concentrated dyes that were meticulously applied to large sheets of tanned leather. First, the artist carefully carved his figures and forms into the leather canvas using metal or wooden tools. Next, he used a small brush to dab or paint indelible dye onto the indented surface. While the resulting scenes may appear cheerfully nostalgic on initial examination, the leather canvases are in fact powerful visual autobiographies that record Rembert’s arduous life as a black man in the segregated mid-twentieth-century American South, a life profoundly affected by racial violence and systemic injustice.

Rembert grew up in rural southwest Georgia under the care of a great-aunt, having been abandoned by his birth mother as an infant. The household’s finances were strained, and, from an early age, Rembert toiled alongside relatives in cotton or vegetable fields; a good day’s work might yield three dollars for the family’s combined efforts. Only after the harvest was complete could Rembert go to school, often starting as late as October and attending, on average, two or three days a week. Unsurprisingly, he struggled academically and eventually dropped out to earn money. Throughout his youth, Rembert was fond of drawing and developed a talent for lively storytelling.   

As a teenager, Rembert began to participate in the civil rights movement, traveling to nearby cities to join peace marches for racial equality. The trajectory of Rembert’s life was interrupted during a 1965 demonstration in Americus, Georgia. When gunfire erupted, Rembert fled in the ensuing chaos. He found an abandoned car with keys still in the ignition, and, in a moment of panic, sped away. He was quickly apprehended and held in the Cuthbert County jail for one year without being formally charged; he was denied the opportunity to post bail or receive visitors. An escape attempt resulted in his being recaptured and hung by his feet in a remote area. Police officials chose to make an example of Rembert by placing him in shackles and marching him through predominately black neighborhoods. Originally sentenced to twenty-seven years behind bars, Rembert spent seven years at the maximum-security Georgia State Prison in Reidsville performing forced labor on a chain gang. Although the brutal practice of chain gangs had been officially outlawed in Georgia in the 1940s, the punishment persisted through the 1970s.

While incarcerated, Rembert learned to read and write, and also took up leatherworking, crafting small utilitarian objects, such as billfolds and shoulder bags. During a chance encounter while assigned to a chain gang outside the penitentiary, he met his future wife, Patsy. The couple corresponded throughout Rembert’s confinement, were married after his release in 1974, and moved to Connecticut the following year. As their family grew to include eight children, Rembert was employed as longshoreman.

It was Patsy’s encouragement that inspired Rembert to document his memories—of childhood, of the civil rights movement, of incarceration—using the medium he knew and loved: “Why don’t you take your history and put it on the leather instead?” Slowly, Rembert’s tooled canvases—today frequently compared to the collages of Romare Bearden as well as Jacob Lawrence’s narrative scenes—found an appreciative audience in New Haven, ultimately leading to an exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery in 2000. Since then, Rembert has been the subject of major museum presentations and an award-winning 2011 documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert. His works are represented in prestigious public collections throughout the nation, including the High Museum in his native state of Georgia. Although he never forgot the attempted lynching that nearly took his life, Rembert refused to succumb to hatred—“I have no bitterness”—and was admired for his generous spirit, as well as his creative genius.