Life story

New Haven artist and lynching survivor shares life story in posthumous memories

Artist Winfred Rembert is remembered as a New Haven ‘treasure’ with an irrepressible spirit when he passed away last March at the age of 75. He was very open to the story of his youth in Jim Crow, Georgia.

He has told it in dozens of interviews since his discovery by the art world 20 years ago. He recounted it in an award-winning 2011 documentary, “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert”. But he told it above all in the paintings he himself learned to do on leather.

There he deposited his memories of sunburnt cotton fields, jumping juke joints, brutal chain gangs and horrific lynchings – one of them is his. His depictions of city life come alive with human activity, marking him as a folk artist. But his paintings of cotton fields can be very structured, almost quilt-like. And his paintings of chain gangs border on the abstract. One of the most popular, “All Me”, brings together dozens of convicts in a single organization.

“Chain Gang,” a leather work by nationally recognized, Georgia-born artist Winfred Rembert, who lived much of his life in the Newhallville section of New Haven, in a photo publication ahead of a 2012 exhibition at the Aldelson Galleries in New York.

Adelson Galleries / Contribution /

Now, Rembert is set to tell his story again – this time in detail in a book, “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” published September 7. The chapter on chain gangs has already been checked out in The New Yorker and it could be Rembert’s latest masterpiece, introducing it to his biggest audience yet.

Memoirs of Winfred Rembert "Chasing Me to My Grave: Memoir of an Artist on Jim Crow South" publishes Sept. 7.

Winfred Rembert’s memoir “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South” was released on September 7th.

Bloomsbury / Photo contribution

It will also introduce a lesser-known Rembert. Gone are the public storytellers who seemed to like to share their story. To replace him, he is a more introspective Rembert, who still struggles to explain to himself, as well as to the world, the wounds that were inflicted on him in his youth, mainly by racism, but also by his own abandonment. .

The book opens with teenage Rembert fleeing the police for a crime he doesn’t remember committing to seek refuge with a mother he barely knew. She had given it when he was three months old to be raised by a great aunt in the countryside of Cuthbert, Georgia. He follows the train tracks to reach her and when he does, she challenges him, “What are you doing here?

“I wanted to turn away and get away somewhere in the world where no one knew who I was. I felt like a person. I felt like nothing, ”Rembert wrote in the book. “She spoke rudely to me, as if she didn’t want to see me.”

The voice is that of Rembert, but it is a voice that he himself modified by working with an unlikely collaborator: Erin I. Kelly, a philosophy professor at Tufts University who focuses on ethics and criminal justice. In an interview, Kelly said she first encountered Rembert’s art in 2015 while researching cover images for one of her academic books titled “The Limits of Blame.”

"Field Supervisors # 1" by Winfred Rembert.

“Supervisors on field n ° 1” by Winfred Rembert.

Art © 2021 Estate of Winfred Rembert / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

"The beginning" by Winfred Rembert.

“The Beginning” by Winfred Rembert.

Art © 2021 Estate of Winfred Rembert / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

“I was looking for Lawrence (the painter Jacob Lawrence) and I thought, ‘Ah! I have never seen these paintings by Lawrence before. And then when I looked closer I saw it was Rembert, ”Kelly said.

Kelly wasn’t the only one who saw the similarity. Rembert, who learned to use leather while working in prison, has been compared to both Lawrence – best known for his portrayal of the Great Black Migration from the South to the North – and Romare Bearden.

She quickly met Rembert at McBlain Books, the antique bookstore in Hamden who first exhibited his work. Nudge by owner Phil McBlain, she and Rembert began working on the memoir together in March 2018. At that point, Rembert felt a sense of urgency. In poor health, he feared he would die before he finished it.

Over the next two years, Kelly and Rembert met twice a month at his home in the Newhallville section of New Haven, often in the presence of his wife Patsy. Her new voice emerged from the back-and-forth method they settled into.

“We were talking and I was writing excerpts from the interview that I thought would work in the book and I would read it to him as a chapter and ask him if that was what he wanted,” Kelly said. “And he would come up with more thoughts, or make corrections, or add something here or there.”

New Haven artist Winfred Rembert will share his life story in his posthumous memoirs,

New Haven artist Winfred Rembert will share his life story in his posthumous memoir, “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South”.

Renan Ozturk / Photo contribution

The process opened Kelly’s eyes. “One thing I learned that I didn’t know from looking at the paintings and watching the documentary was the sense of fear and dread that people lived in Cuthbert and I presume in other parts of the South as well,” she declared.

In the book, Rembert says, “With my paintings I tried to make a bad situation look good. You can’t make a chain gang look great other than putting it in the art. “

Part of the book’s power comes from the contrast between its colorful, orderly paintings (often reproduced over entire pages) and the text, where the casual cruelty of Jim Crow’s racism comes alive.

On the chain gang, prisoners could be confined for days in a cramped “sweat box” to be punished. Meanwhile, in downtown Cuthbert, there was a “laughing barrel,” where any black person could be arrested and called upon to laugh at any white person’s joke, the book details.

When Rembert, who had escaped from prison, was hanged by the heels by a mob of lynchers, he recalled in the book what was going through his head when a deputy approached him with a hooked knife .

“This sort of thing was designed to keep you humble,” realizes Rembert. As an artist, the act of contemplation and creation sometimes made him physically ill. Eventually, she was diagnosed with PTSD.

In total, Rembert spent nine years in jail, jail, or chain gangs. After his release in 1974, he married Patsy and moved north. Their first stop in Connecticut was at Bridgeport, where the great-aunt’s son and grandson he called “Mama” lived. He worked as a longshoreman, got injured on the job, and in despair discovered that there was money to be made in the drug trade.

Kelly said she couldn’t know how Rembert’s family (he and Patsy eventually had eight children and sheltered many more) will react to her book. But she guarantees that he approved every word himself. He saw the final proof just before he died.

The opening chapter on following the tracks to find his mother is their very first interview, Kelly said. In it, Rembert says he always wanted to paint himself while walking on these railroad tracks, but he couldn’t.

During their talks, however, he managed to paint. Entitled “In Search of My Mother” it shows a boy climbing the tracks as if it were a ladder and it is the picture that closes the book. “It was a very happy thing that he was able to do that,” Kelly said.

In the text, Rembert explained that he painted the board for viewers to see it move forward. “It’s just a long, lonely railroad as far as the eye can see, but I’m not going to let that stop me,” he said. “I’m going to see my mom and if I can make it I think I’ll be fine.”

This story has been updated to reflect the time Rembert spent in jail and in prison.

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