Grant Profile: Winfred Rembert Artist-in-Residence

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April 2014

The best kind of education comes from a personal connection where you learn directly from someone’s real life experiences.  It is when someone shares ideas and deep feelings without holding back.  It is when you sit side-by-side a mentor and get personal instruction. Nearly 200 Arlington High School students were privileged to receive such an education in late March 2014 when Winfred Rembert, an African American folk artist and storyteller, spent a week as artist-in-residence at Arlington High School.

“Every now and then, when you meet a certain person, you know your life will never be the same.  That happened to me when I met Winfred Rembert” reflected David Ardito, Interim Visual Arts Director for the Arlington Public Schools, who organized the residency along with the Arlington International Film Festival.  “Winfred is the real deal.  And his connections with students through his history and through his art were wonderful things to behold.”

Rembert is a compassionate, calm-natured storyteller.  Born in 1945 in Cuthbert, Georgia, Rembert had a rough life growing up in the segregated south.  As you listen to him tell stories of being chased, beaten, kicked and abused, you agree with him that he is very lucky to be alive.  Very few people are fortunate enough to be able to turn around personal experiences of gross mistreatment and share them in a positive way.  Rembert ties together his artistic craft of leather-tooling and his gift of storytelling.  Each of his leather-tooled paintings is intensely autobiographical:  laboring in the cotton fields, working on the chain gang, his near lynching, and daily life in the rural south, among others.

Over the course of Rembert’s one week residency, English, History, Visual Arts and Metco students were held spellbound as Rembert recalled with detail, troubling experiences of his life during a critical point in America’s history.  Students opened their minds and hearts to Rembert’s personal stories, and the sometimes difficult conversations that he wanted to share. Rembert’s leather tooling technique is unique in the art world. He makes impressions in the soft leather with metal tools and builds his narrative with line, textures and patterns. He then uses leather dyes to add vibrant colors that carry the eye from one subject to the other in his complex arrangements of figures and objects.

Under Rembert’s careful tutelage, Arlington High School’s visual arts students created their own tooled leather artwork based on personal themes that were important to them. English, History and Metco students attended emotional lectures about racial tension in the 1950’s and ‘60’s and the tragic American legacy that we all want to forget.  Rembert bore personal and painful witness to all of this during his time with students.  He did not let them off the hook and insisted on them knowing the painful past and the imperfect present.

In addition, students watched a biographical film about the artist entitled “ALL ME: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert”.  His story of survival and ultimate emergence as a successful American artist moved some teachers and students to tears. “Students have individually come up to me to talk about their experience with Rembert and every single one of them thought it was one of the most powerful eighty minutes they have ever experienced in a school, or life setting” shared Nicole Eidson, Arlington High School English Teacher. Rembert’s residency was made possible through grants from the Arlington Education Foundation, the Arlington International Film Festival, the Arlington Cultural Council and a donation from the Martin Luther King Committee.

For more information on this residency and Winfred Rembert’s life and art, visit http://ahsartistresidency.weebly.com.

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