Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 1, 2000Volume 29, Number 1

New Haven artist Winfred Rembert created "Chain Gang III," this year. His images of life in rural Georgia are on carved and dyed leather. Rembert learned his craft from a fellow prisoner while serving time in jail.

Artists' creations depict black life in the rural South

Black life in the rural South is documented in a new exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery featuring two African-American artists -- one who achieved renown during his lifetime for his paintings and linocuts, the other a self-taught artist living in New Haven who began carving leather as a form of artistic expression while serving time in jail.

"Southern Exposure: Works by Winfred Rembert and Hale Woodruff" features images carved in leather by the former artist and a group of linocuts by the latter. Both artists grew up in the South and have made rural life a major subject of their work.

"A rich tradition of American cultural expression, both written and visual, has long chronicled the tragic consequences of the institution of slavery," says Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the gallery and co-organizer of the exhibition.

"The artworks in this small exhibition present indelible images of racially segregated rural Georgia in the middle decades of the 20th century, some laced with barbaric cruelty, others imbued with a stirring sense of human faith and endurance," he adds. "This museum's purchase of Hale Woodruff's 'Atlanta Portfolio' coincided with our discovery of Winfred Rembert's artwork, which is being made right now in New Haven, and we are delighted to be able to show them together."

Woodruff (1900-1980) began his artistic career drawing cartoons for his school paper and later trained at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis. In 1926 he became the first recipient of the Harmon Foundation Award presented to African Americans for distinguished achievement in the fine arts. This award, and the sale of some of his paintings, made it possible for him to travel to Europe in 1927. He settled in Paris and began to paint in the Cubist style.

When he returned to the United States in 1931, Woodruff joined the faculty of Atlanta University, making him the first highly trained African-American artist to teach at a black Southern university. Woodruff's linocut images in the Yale Art Gallery exhibition were created during the nearly 15 years he taught in Atlanta, and document shack homes, black churches, outhouses, pine forests, field work, chain gangs and lynchings. Woodruff's creations were made by carving, inking and pressing a commercial flooring material favored for its expressive character and affordability.

In 1936, Woodruff spent a summer in Mexico mixing colors and preparing walls for the muralist Diego Rivera, and two years later began one of his best-known projects -- the "Amistad Mutiny" mural at Talladega College in Alabama. In 1946 he joined the faculty at New York University, where he retired in 1968. In his latter career he adopted a style he described as "semiabstract symbolic painting."

As an African American raised in the South, Rembert lived the life that Woodruff observed and documented. Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, in 1945, Rembert spent his childhood picking cotton, chopping potato vines and shaking peanuts, with little time for education. Angered by the violent assaults and indignities of segregation, he became active in civil rights protests, an involvement which resulted in a near-lynching and a 27-year prison sentence.

In the Bainbridge County Jail a fellow inmate taught Rembert how to tool and carve leather. When his sentence was commuted to seven years, Rembert moved north. In the New Haven home he shares with his wife, Patsy, the artist and father of eight children produces images of black life in rural Georgia. His subjects -- which he draws first on paper and then carves into the leather -- include men on a chain gang, a lynching, a woman giving birth in a cotton field and street scenes of his hometown in Georgia.

Next to each of his works on display in the exhibition is a commentary by Rembert about the subject matter. For example, one reads: "This is a memory of a place in my home town. The name of the street in this picture is Blakely Street, but this part of it, which was a dead end, was called Nigger Corner. I cleaned up the name and titled it 'Colored Folks Corner.'"

"Southern Exposure: Works by Winfred Rembert and Hale Woodruff" will be on view through Nov. 26. Rembert will discuss his life and work with Mary Kordak, the Jan and Frederick Mayer Curator of Education and co-organizer of the exhibition, at an Art à la Carte offering on Wednesday, Sept. 6, at 12:20 p.m. at the gallery.

The Yale University Art Gallery, located at 1111 Chapel St., is open to the public without charge Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, 1-6 p.m. It is closed Mondays and major holidays. A wheelchair-accessible entrance is at 201 York St., with a reserved parking space nearby. For taped general and program information, call (203) 432-0600 or check the gallery's website at www.yale.edu/artgallery.


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