2024 Mudge Fellow carries on the artistic legacy of his father

Before he could start his own career as an artist, Mitchell Rembert wanted to finish his father’s. 

Mr. Rembert, the 2024 Mudge Fellow, is son of the late Winfred Rembert, whose leather paintings express the horrors he witnessed during the Jim Crow era, laboriously carving striking images of cotton fields, segregation, and Black people in America. Winfred was a (virtual) visiting artist at Groton School in 2020, and his memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist's Memoir of the Jim Crow South, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2022.

“Initially, I was going to come out with my own style, just to step away from his particular style and not be trapped in that Civil Rights box,” Mr. Rembert said on campus earlier this week. “But after my father passed, I was going through his tools to see what I could use and what I should throw out, and found a notebook with his last thirty ideas.”

The elder Rembert had talked about doing one last body of work—a summary of his life—before retiring. Before he could finish, however, he died in 2021 at the age of 75 after several struggles with his health.

“When I found that notebook, I said, ‘You know what? Before I tell my life story, I’ll finish telling his,’” Mr. Rembert said. “So that’s why a lot of this artwork has so much of his essence and technique.”

Mr. Rembert’s work shifts from the Jim Crow South to share the perspective of a Black man in America today. Pieces spotlight people like George Floyd and Colin Kaepernick, victims and activists who Mr. Rembert said are antitheses of too many in popular culture who would rather not talk about race—or anything else controversial that might hurt their brand. 

“We need more people like Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] who are willing to stand up for the culture, even if it means their wealth,” he said. “And I feel like a lot of those rappers, they see the inside of it and they get this wealth and they don’t want to let go of it.

When former NFL quarterback Kaepernick drew criticism for kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality, Mr. Rembert said, the rapper “Jay-Z swept the whole issue under the rug. He’s supposed to be the representative of the Black culture, but says, ‘Aren’t we past kneeling?’ And I said to myself, ‘Hell no. We’re not past kneeling.’” 

Groton’s Mudge Fellowship was established by the Mudge Foundation in 1992 to enhance students’ exposure to the arts. Following the opening of his exhibition, Mr. Rembert set up an impromptu studio in the Dining Hall lobby. Students dropped in throughout the week and tried their hand at leather crafting, with the finished pieces added to the wall outside the 
Brodigan Gallery. 

“I got a lot of students and they were high energy and so willing to participate,” Mr. Rembert explained. “You could see they were just giving it their all, and that just warmed my heart. 

“I taught them the basics to leather carving and leather tooling or beveling—people call it two different things,” he added. “At first, I’d show them how to sketch an image and then transfer it onto the leather. And then after they cut into that image they drew, I had them work that image with the tools to get that image to protrude off the leather.”

Despite his frustrations, Mr. Rembert finds hope when working with young people the same way his father did when he was growing up.

“You get such a positive response from the kids when you're doing something hands-on,” he said. “You're interacting with them, and they see you do a great thing and you tell them, ‘Hey, you're capable of doing this and potentially more.’

“There are moments when you’re working one-on-one with a kid, and you break through their walls and actually see how talented the kid is and how much potential they have. And then you show it to them and then they see themselves in a new light. That is all the reward. I would do it for free if I could affect every child that way. Even when I don’t, the small percentage that I do makes it more than worth it.”

Mitchell Rembert’s Legacy in Leather is on display in Groton School’s Brodigan Gallery until February 24.