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Portraits of healing: New Haven artist uses leather paintings to cope with his near-lynching, dark moments of the past

Hidden History

HAMDEN, Conn. (WTNH) — McBlain Books — a rare book store in Hamden — holds the key to a dark time in American history. Customers who look at the leather portraits hanging on the wall will find an unbelievable story that is decades old.

Thinking back, Winfred Rembert is adamant. “Cotton picking is like prison. It’s tough work; it’s no nonsense.”

He is the creator of the portraits. Leather is his canvas, the battleground his mind.​ The stain a color kaleidoscope that can’t erase the pain.​

Even at 74 years of age, Rembert believes he still has a chalk line to walk when he goes back to Georgia, and he walks it.

The portraits are of pain Rembert meticulously crafted from his memory, surviving life in the segregated South during the 1960s in Americus, Georgia.

Many scenes depict the moment he almost lost his life.

Arrested after a civil rights protest, Rembert stole a car to escape an angry mob.

He was caught and thrown in jail. He tried to escape and fought a sheriff who was beating him.  

“He went for his gun and we wrestlin’ over the gun,” Rembert said, recalling the exact moment. “I managed to take it from him. I locked him in the cell and I fled. And I got caught.”

At 18, he was thrown in the trunk of a car and driven deep into the woods.

When the car stopped, the trunk opened and Rembert saw his fate: a noose on a tree and a group of white men.

Police stripped him and hung him by his ankles.

“They were all just standing around hitting me and kicking me and punching me. And here come the deputy — the one I locked up in the cell. He’s got a hookbill knife in his hand and I can see it.”

They attempted to castrate him before someone stepped in.

“I just know that he [the man who saved him] had on a pair of brown wing tipped shoes with a brown suit. And when he spoke everybody listened. He was a powerful man. He saved my life because he said they had better things they could do with me.”

Rembert was thrown back in jail and sentenced to a prison chain gang and work in the cotton fields.

Web Extra: Winfred Rembert in his own words

His story of discrimination was so heart-wrenching it was made into a documentary: “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.”

​”I think if you are a sensitive person, you might think ‘gee that is still the way it is,'” said Vivian Ducat, the documentary’s Film Producer.

Winfred’s life was Hell for nearly a decade in prison. But in Hell, he found his calling: learning how to create art through leather toiling.​

Eventually, he was set free and moved to New Haven. He married his wife, Patsy, and had eight children.

His artwork was discovered when he made a purse as a gift.

“When you fold it you can see…it was meant to be,” Winfred said, explaining how the handbag was folded and dyed to show a dance scene from a long-ago memory.

The leather works were given to friends who helped him during tough times.​

Phil McBlain, the owner of McBlain Books, was one of them.​

“It turned out — without training — he was one of those fabulous artists,” McBlain said.

McBlain and his wife believed in Rembert. After displaying his art, one sold for as much as $30,000.​

After years of his craft, Rembert said he is now just realizing that he is an artist.

The artworld recognized him with shows in New York City, at Yale University, and back home in Georgia.  

Despite the accolades, the 74-year-old still feels discrimination.​

The white stained cotton on the leather has allowed him to express the deepest darkest corners of American history.  

With every carefully carved out line, there is an opportunity for all to bear witness to his remarkable spirit.​

“I’ve used it. I’ve used what happened to me in a positive way.”

This Hidden history now revealed.  ​ 

“Who am I that someone wants my work and would come miles and miles away to purchase it? Hey, that’s a good feeling.”

Rembert’s artwork is published in books and his amazing story is archived at the Library of Congress.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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