From the cotton fields of Georgia to gallery openings in New York, Winfred Rembert has collected quite a few stories. And he decided awhile back to share about his trials and triumphs through leatherwork.
“A lot of things I’ve done and seen are unbelievable,” said Rembert, who talked with English classes at the STEAM Academy during a Lexington visit for an art exhibition at Transylvania University. “I am trying to tell a story, and the life I’ve lived is complex,” he noted.
Language arts teachers Marty Vaughan and Kari Patrick prepared their students all week, though the teenagers had no idea they would actually meet the artist as well as filmmaker Vivian Ducat, who spearheaded the documentary “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.” In class, the aim was to guide analytical thinking and thoughtful dialogue about Rembert’s art and hopefully foster empathy for his experiences. “They really dug into the themes and emotion behind his work,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan suggested Rembert’s resiliency was particularly laudable. “Grit is that thing inside that drives you forward even when everything seems against you,” he reminded students in the gym.
After viewing a short version of “All Me,” the classes heard from Ducat, who described how she met the unassuming Rembert at a gallery show and decided the world needed to know more about him. “This man speaks almost in the cadence of poetry, and that’s appealing,” said Ducat, whose background includes work in radio. She also mentioned how Rembert broke into old-time gospel songs during the unscripted documentary, which added context and rich texture.
Sitting among the teenagers at STEAM, Rembert spoke bluntly about his background – including how the plantation owner forbade his mother to send him to school and how he was arrested for stealing a car while fleeing for his life in the turbulent 1960s. The judge gave him 27 years in state prison, but Rembert didn’t seem bitter. That is, after all, when he found his trade.
After learning to tool and dye leather wallets and such, he turned to stretching, staining, and etching on larger panels to tell his life story in art. Rembert showed the students how a strip of leather needs watering first and how he wields a swivel knife and bevel tool after tracing an image onto his canvas. “Leatherwork is hard to do, and it’s unforgiving. You can’t make mistakes,” he said, adding that imagination helps disguise the rough spots.
His artwork focuses largely on memories of his hardscrabble childhood, colorful characters from his hometown, and the men who worked alongside him on the chain gang. “You can fall, but you can get up. I’ve been knocked down and I’ve been abused, but I didn’t stay there. I got up,” Rembert said. “I’m a lucky man, I’m a blessed man, I am a survivor.”
Hosting an artist like Rembert fits with STEAM’s goal of providing authentic learning experiences and encouraging students to consider diverse and multiple perspectives.
“His whole story is one of triumph and overcoming odds and using art as a way to express that,” Vaughan said. “There’s a real human and a real story of struggle behind his creative expressions. It really brings the stuff on the digital screen or in the textbook to life.”
Tammy L. Lane, website editor