When Winfred Rembert got hurt and couldn’t work any more as a longshoreman, his wife suggested he take up a long-forgotten hobby — carving, tooling and dyeing leather.
The rest was history, as only Rembert can tell it.
He came to the Arlington Street Church of God in Akron on Sunday to talk about his work and for a showing of the 2012 documentary of his life, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.
“Life has a funny way of working out if you keep trying,” said Rembert, 67, his hand on his wife’s knee, his shoes a lime green.
Diane Lewis, associate pastor of the church, saw a TV news story about Rembert as she was dozing off one night. She vowed to bring him to Akron during Black History Month. The University of Akron’s Academic Achievement Program was a co-sponsor.
“I appreciate the value of his story,” she said. “He’s telling our story: ‘This happened then, but I’ve got to reframe it.’?”
Rembert was raised on a plantation in Cuthbert in southwestern Georgia by a great aunt who took him in as a 3-month-old.
He picked cotton for about six years with “Mama,” who was afraid of white people and reticent about challenging them in any way. But Rembert’s life was to take a different direction.
By the time he was a teen, he rebelled against working in the fields and fled to sleep in a pool hall. “I was determined,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to pick cotton.”
He was swept up in the civil rights struggle and went on to spend seven years on a chain gang on a host of charges. He was nearly lynched (and castrated).
But there was an upside to prison: He saw another inmate tool leather and learned to do it himself. He also learned how to read and write.
When he got out, he married Patsy and the couple had six sons and two daughters. He had a series of blue-collar jobs as a heavy equipment operator, longshoreman and janitor.
Along the way he told the stories of the segregated South, poverty and the cotton fields over dinner.
When he was injured on the job about a dozen years ago, Patsy suggested he tell his stories in his long-forgotten leather work.
“You know these stories are going to be dead when you die,” she reminded him.
He gave his first work to a friend who had shown kindness to the Rembert family in a time of need. Astonishingly, the friend sold the artwork — of a couple sitting in a nightclub — for $300 and gave him the proceeds.
At first Rembert copied other artists’ styles. Then he developed his own — vivid reds and oranges; blues; repetitive swirls of white dots for cotton and motion.
He telescopes in on tender memories — his wife’s mother, nicknamed Sugar Cane; a midwife in his hometown named Miss Mary; making bread with Mama; the hymn Amazing Grace being sung by workers in the fields. Other paintings depict harsher realities — chain gangs, cotton picking, a lynching.
He is just as amazed as anyone that his artwork can generate more than $30,000 a pop and has been exhibited at the Hudson River Museum, Yale University and the Flint Institute of Arts, to name a few.
In 2011, documentary filmmaker Vivian Ducat was so captivated by Rembert’s story that she followed him back to Cuthbert to record his reminiscences. Her 75-minute film All In was released last year.
Rembert, who now lives in New Haven, Conn., hopes his rise from illiterate field worker to famous artist can inspire other African-Americans and help to reduce black-on-black crime.
Letters from young people, some of them bringing him to tears, show that he’s having some impact, he said.
He has no bitterness about what has happened to him, he said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3729.