The late artist Winfred Rembert, who lived and worked in Connecticut for the last 30 years of his life, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Biography on Monday for his book “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South.”
Celebrated in the state for his artistic talent and for overcoming myriad struggles, he was known for using those troubled times as the basis for drawings he carved into pieces of leather.
The book, credited as “by the late Winfred Rembert as told to Erin I. Kelly” was published this past September by Bloomsbury Publishing, six months after Rembert died in New Haven at the age of 75.
The Pulitzer committee describes the book as “a searing first-person illustrated account of an artist’s life during the 1950s and 1960s in an unreconstructed corner of the deep South — an account of abuse, endurance, imagination, and aesthetic transformation.”
Rembert’s art reflects his childhood and early work and prison experiences in the South, but he didn’t start making that art until he moved to New Haven in 1987. He was already in his 50s when his wife Patsy encouraged him to use his life experience as the basis for drawings and paintings. He was skilled at carving and painting leather and that became his primary artistic medium.
Rembert was born in Georgia, worked in cotton fields as a child, spent time in jail — including for civil-rights protests against Jim Crow segregation laws — served on a chain gang and survived a lynching attempt.
In Connecticut, he fell in with drug dealers in Bridgeport and the Bronx, dealing a little and nearly killing someone who had stolen from him. Arrested, convicted and sentenced to four years, he was released due to pleas from Patsy and a promise he made to a judge never to sell drugs again. He kept the promise.
Rembert was befriended by Phil and Sharon McBlain, Hamden-based antiquarian booksellers who specialized in African and African-American subjects. As a gift to Phil McBlain, Rembert created a painting on leather, based on a drawing by Miguel Covarrubias he had seen in a book at the McBlains’ shop. The couple encouraged him to do more, and helped him make his first big sale.
It was also the McBlains who introduced Rembert to Erin Kelly, a philosophy professor at Tufts University who writes about criminal justice, reparations and civil-rights issues. Rembert asked Kelly to collaborate on his memoir. She interviewed Rembert in his New Haven home for two or three hours at a time, twice a month, for a period of two years.
One of Rembert’s first art exhibits came about because of Johnes Ruta, who was active in the local arts community and curated the art that hung on the walls of an arthouse cinema in downtown New Haven. In the book, Rembert recalls:
Johnes gave me a show in early 1998, at the York Square theater on Broadway in New Haven. It was a little show with about ten pictures. I brought some good-sized portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, which I made because I thought people would be interested in buying pictures of famous people. I also included a few cotton fields and other pictures from my own life. I noticed that, even though it was Black History Month, no one was looking at any of the portraits. I said to Patsy, “No one is paying attention to Martin Luther King.” There was a White man walking around, looking at the work. He heard me say that and he turned to me and said, “You know why that is so?”
“No sir, tell me.”
“We can get a picture of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X anywhere we want to buy it. But we can’t get what you do out of your head. That’s what we want.”
[ 'Narrative On Leather' Tells Of African American Lives In Deep South ]
This revelation changed Rembert’s approach to his art, and this focus on his
unique experience and talents also led him to commit to the unusual medium he had begun to work in.
“I could have easily put it on paper, and it would have been easier and less time consuming if I put it on paper,” he writes. “But let’s add a little something to it by putting it on leather.”
Rembert’s work was seen in Hartford last year as part of the Wadsworth Atheneum exhibit “Protest and Promise: Selections from the Contemporary Art Collection 1963-2019″ and in 2000 at the Yale University Art Gallery in “Southern Exposure: Works by Winfred Rembert and Hale Woodruff.” Both museums have work by Rembert in their permanent collections.
Rembert was the subject of numerous feature stories in Connecticut newspapers and magazines over the past 20 years, including a long profile by Owen McNally in the Courant in 2000 (when Rembert’s art was on view at Yale) that recounts some of the same adventures that made it into the book.
Rembert’s work was featured in other books prior to the memoir, including “Don’t Hold Me Back: My Life and Art” in 2003 and the catalogues for his exhibits “Amazing Grace” and Memories of My Youth.” A documentary about the artist, “All Me: The Life And Times of Winfred Rembert” directed by Vivian Ducat, was released in 2011. A “Winfred Rembert 2023 Wall Calendar” is scheduled to be published in August.
Besides the Pulitzer Prize, “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” was named Nonfiction Book of the Year by Booklist and made “Best Books of the Year” lists at NPR, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, Barnes & Noble, Hudson Booksellers, ARTnews, and elsewhere.
Christopher Arnott can be reached at email@example.com.