• Wed. May 12th, 2021

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Winfred Rembert, 75, Dies; Turned Painful Memories Into Art

When he was on the chain gang, working on a road crew, a young woman, Patsy Gammage, caught his eye. He managed to start a correspondence with her, and they married after he was released from prison in 1974. They migrated north — first to Rochester, N.Y., then to Connecticut, where Mr. Rembert found work as a longshoreman in Bridgeport. They settled in New Haven in 1987.

He had always liked to draw. While in prison, he had learned how to work in leather using tools and dyes, and he started making small items like billfolds.

He gave a small leather picture to his friends Philip and Sharon McBlain, and they hung it on the wall of their antiquarian bookshop near New Haven. Mr. Rembert had traced the picture from a book because he didn’t think white people would buy his own work, Mr. McBlain said in an interview.

But the piece sold for $300. Mr. McBlain gave the money to Mr. Rembert, who created a bigger picture, which sold for $750. The McBlains got him some leather and tools, and Mr. Rembert’s wife urged him to carve pictures from his own life.

At 51, he started excavating his memories. With blades of ivory and a mallet, he reproduced — in painstaking detail — his near-lynching and gangs of prisoners in their zebra-striped uniforms with sledgehammers and shovels.

He showed lively scenes of the juke joints and pool halls of his hometown. And he showed personally painful scenes, like a classroom with all the children at their desks except for him: He was assigned to keep the potbelly stove filled with wood. He never learned to read or write until he got to prison.

He soon had a solo show, at the York Square Cinema in New Haven in 1998. Other exhibitions followed at museums and galleries — at the Yale University Art Gallery and in Harlem, Atlanta, Los Angeles and elsewhere. At the Adelson Galleries in Manhattan in 2010, some pieces sold for $35,000 each. Perhaps the highest price he fetched was close to $80,000, for one of his chain gang images.