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Rex Goreleigh

In the Beginning by Rex Goreleigh. (Invaluable.com)

Harlem Renaissance Artist Paved the Way for Arts Education in Princeton

By Ilene Dube

It sounds like the plot of an inspirational movie.

In the early part of the 20th century, a Black man grows up in the household of a white doctor, where his mother is employed as a housemaid. The man, who is artistically gifted, is orphaned at age 15. He moves to New York to study acting, becomes involved with the Harlem Renaissance where he begins studying painting and drawing, meets muralists Diego Rivera and Ben Shahn while waiting tables, and finds himself working on New Deal projects during the Great Depression.

Fast forward, and the man goes on to exhibit in museums abroad and at home. His work is collected by the likes of Toni Morrison.

This is, in fact, the true story of Russell “Rex” Goreleigh (1902-1986), who spent nearly 40 years in Princeton making and teaching art.

Rex Goreleigh (Portrait by Bill Saunders, 1975)

In 1948, Goreleigh was recruited by a group of Princeton University professors and members of the local Jewish and Quaker communities to form a racially and religiously integrated arts organization known as the Princeton Group Arts.

The Arts Council of Princeton has recently honored that history by naming a painting studio for him. “Not only was Goreleigh a nationally recognized talent, but he was also a member of our board of trustees from 1969-1972, making the designation all the more meaningful,” says ACP Executive Director Adam Welch.

The room naming was an idea spurred on by a series of extraordinary events, he notes, “but it had been on my mind since I started at the ACP.”

“In the course of my research into the history of the ACP, I came across a Town Topics article that cited Rex Goreleigh joining the board of trustees in the May 15, 1969 issue. In addition to that, we have a painting on long-term loan from Shirley Satterfield,” Welch continues. “I thought the time was right. Rex Goreleigh’s birthday, September 2, was just around the corner and we were hosting the James Wilson Edwards show. I asked [exhibition curators] Judith Brodsky and Rhinold Ponder to be honorary chairs for the campaign, as was Shirley Satterfield.”

“Rex’s Studio on the Canal held the only art classes you could take in the community that was not at an academic institution until the Arts Council of Princeton was established in 1967,” says Brodsky. “After realizing, through the exhibition and the panels we created, the impact of Rex on the ACP and the Princeton Community, we felt that Rex should be honored for his role in bringing the arts to Princeton’s residents.”

Untitled (Bridge over Princeton Canal) by Rex Goreleigh. (Invaluable.com)

Humble Beginnings

A paint-splattered sink that may have been a part of the original studio.
(Photo by Jeffrey E. Tryon)

The Studio on the Canal, which Goreleigh established after his time at Princeton Group Arts — which had been located on Spring Street — became a legendary institution in the garage next to his home at 8-10 Canal Road in West Windsor, just over the Princeton border. It was not far from the Glen Acres community, a historic neighborhood whose residents were committed to a vision of racial equality when few thought an integrated neighborhood could be successful.

On Canal Road, Goreleigh had a place to continue workshops in painting, printmaking, and ceramics and ran it until 1978. Some of the instructors were sculptor Glenn Cohen, painters Hughie Lee Smith and Vincent Ceglia, and printmaker Stefan Martin.

Vestiges of his former home and the Studio on the Canal remain today. The house has been doubled in size, but the adjoining garage still has a studio over it. The present owners use it as a music studio. There is a paint-splattered sink that may have been a part of the original art studio, according to its present-day owners.

Princeton Basin 1872 — Goreleigh house in the distance. (Courtesy Historical Society of West Windsor)

“[Goreleigh’s] house has another distinction — as one of the only remaining original buildings of the mid-1800s community of Princeton Basin, which was centered around the intersection of Alexander Road and the D&R Canal,” says Paul Ligeti, president of the Historical Society of West Windsor. He estimates it was built in the mid 1800s.

Goreleigh was born in Penllyn, Pa., where he took to art as a way of coping with a speech impediment. He drew and painted everything he saw. He felt a part of the family for whom his mother worked, he told a Princeton Packet reporter in 1985. He moved to Philadelphia at the age of 15, when his mother died. A year later, he left for Washington, D.C., to attend high school. At the age of 18, he studied acting in New York’s Lafayette Theatre during the Harlem Renaissance. Inspired by Eubie Blake to further his education, Goreleigh began studying privately with Xavier Barile, an Italian master painter. In 1920, Goreleigh attended a series of displays of African American art at the Harmon Foundation exhibition in New York. Seeing the exhibition inspired him to study painting and drawing in his time off from his job waiting tables. He paid for classes at the Art Students League with his earnings.

Connecting to the Harlem Renaissance

It was prominent Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who gave Goreleigh the opportunity to watch him work on portraits for Rockefeller Center. In 1934, under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Goreleigh met and worked with noted artist Ben Shahn, creator of the WPA mural in Roosevelt Public School, among others.

While in New York, Goreleigh got to know artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Through the Federal Art Project, Goreleigh served as an arts educator, teaching children at the Utopia Neighborhood House in New York.

In 1936 Goreleigh spent a year in Europe, studying with André Lhote in Paris and Leo Z. Moll in Germany (he also studied with Moll in New York). While in Finland, he painted Senegalese Woman (Paris), which was collected by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. The Senegalese woman wears a hat with a cocked brim.

In a painting of the marketplace in Helsinki, Goreleigh started a palette that continued throughout his career.

After returning from Europe, Goreleigh enrolled in the Chicago Art Institute and directed a community arts center on Chicago’s south side. “It was one of the famous art centers, founded during the 1930s,” says Brodsky. “He had taken it safely through the World War II years — that’s where he met Hughie Lee Smith, who spent a great deal of time in New Jersey because of their friendship. Lee Smith eventually bought a townhouse in Cranbury because he was teaching for Rex at Studio on the Canal, as well as at Princeton Day School and the Princeton Art Association.”

Wrote Smith in a catalog essay for a 1982 exhibition of Goreleigh’s work at the TWEED Group in northern New Jersey, “The paintings in this exhibition reveal a unique vision of the world, through the keen eyes of a sophisticated artist of wide worldly experience. Some of the canvases and papers are light and full of gaiety, while others display a great social insight into the lives of Blacks and are grave in their implications without being unbearably oppressive.”

Rex Goreleigh in 1952 at a Princeton Group Arts show at 36 University Place. (Courtesy Historical Society of West Windsor)

Teaching Mechanics And Debutantes

Although Goreleigh may have felt uncomfortable among all those pale blond people in Finland — he wrote how he stuck out like a sore thumb — he had a flair for moving in all circles, which enabled him to flourish in Princeton when schools were still segregated.

Bridging the barrier made him an ideal candidate to direct Princeton Group Arts, an organization dedicated to promoting integration through the teaching of theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, writing, and crafts. In its heyday, Princeton Group Arts attracted 250 students a week, both adults and children, offering workshops in painting, photography, ceramics, and dance. According to a 1952 article in Jet magazine: “In Goreleigh’s classes it is commonplace to see Negro automobile mechanics discussing techniques with debutantes.” Chauffeurs, maids, and day laborers, as well as their children, took classes. Fees were $8 to $12 a term, with 20 percent of students on scholarship.

“Princeton Group Arts also served as a test bed for the Princeton Plan, which integrated its public schools a year later,” says Ligeti.

A Goreleigh painting owned by the Historical Society of West Windsor. (Courtesy Historical Society of West Windsor)

In an exhibition put on by Princeton Group Arts, a mosaic by Margot Einstein — daughter of Princeton’s famed physicist — was sold, according to the Jet article. She had attended classes at Princeton Group Arts, according to a 1952 New York Times article.

“In 1952, Goreleigh and Braxton Elleby starred in Robert E. Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest as two of Princeton University’s Theater Intime’s first Black actors,” writes Ligeti, who is the author of West Windsor Then and Now — A New Perspective.

Although Princeton Group Arts held such fundraisers as a Marian Anderson concert at McCarter Theatre, it folded in 1954 due to a lack of funds. It was then that Goreleigh set up the Studio on the Canal to continue the workshops.

The Mourners by Rex Goreleigh. (Invaluable.com)

A Lifelong Learner

Goreleigh served as the director of the arts and crafts program in Roosevelt schools in 1955-56. He taught at Princeton Adult School, the Neuropsychiatric Institute in Skillman, and in the Trenton school district. In 1976, eight of his works were in an exhibit, “Fragments of American Life,” at the Princeton University Art Museum. He earned his bachelor’s degree with honors from Rutgers in 1978 — he was by then 76! — and in 1980, the New Jersey Historical Society put on a solo exhibition of his work.

Goreleigh’s Tobacco Series comes from the illustrations he did for Britannica Junior encyclopedia, inspired by his experiences in North Carolina, where he also taught. These colorful images include a widow who continued raising her crop after her husband’s death, even sitting out with a rifle to protect her prized tobacco plants. The series shows her spraying, planting, and inspecting her plants. There are original gouaches from 1943, as well as a more colorful series of serigraphs Goreleigh made in 1973, revisiting the subject matter.

Goreleigh’s Fieldworker Series began in the late ’60s/early ’70s, when he visited and painted farms in Cranbury, Roosevelt, and Hightstown. The series started with a watercolor, and by 1962 he had 10 full-blown oil paintings, enabling him to get a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to support the series.

The Social Hour, oil on canvas by Rex Goreleigh, 1971. (Invaluable.com)

His 1971 work The Social Hour shows African American migrant workers all dressed up in satin dresses and high-heeled shoes, dancing the night away at the First Presbyterian Church in Cranbury. Some embrace and some do fancy footwork on the wood plank floor, lit from above.

Not all the paintings are this happy. A 1974 still life shows a migrant worker’s “camp,” with lard, jugs, pots, butter, and a can of peas, looking as though they were quickly abandoned. Another shows a worker near a shack after a fire. These camps were permanent structures but not sturdy, and migrant workers stayed in them as they came through. Early versions made of wood with a tin or corrugated roof often caught fire, until laws required the housing be built from cinderblock. Workers might stay in these houses for six to eight weeks at a time. In Wash Day, a woman is outside one of these structures with her aluminum wash tubs as a child plays nearby.

Wash Day by Rex Goreleigh. (Invaluable.com)

Goreleigh’s artwork documents both the everyday hard work and moments of joy experienced by African American farm workers and others throughout the late 20th century. In his Migrant Workers Series, Goreleigh captured both the daily toil and simple joys of these people, and helped to bring light on the difficult work and living conditions for migrant workers in central New Jersey.

The term migrant worker often conjures the image of an immigrant, but during the mid 20th century, many of the migrant workers who went from farm to farm were not immigrants at all, but African Americans.They would pack up and move to the next job, bringing their children.

Looking at the richly colored canvases, one comprehends how Goreleigh treasured his subject matter, enabling him to see the celebrations amid the difficult conditions in the 1950s through the 1970s.

Current view of Rex Goreleigh’s former home and studio on Canal Road. (Photo by Jeffrey E. Tryon)

Capturing The Human Condition

One painting that perhaps best conveys this mix is Afraid of Living, Scared of Dying. Painted in 1977, it depicts an older migrant worker who has gone off the farming circuit and settled in New Jersey. With close-cropped white hair, this slender, beautiful woman sits on a porch swing, awaiting what comes next.

After living in Princeton for 25 years, Goreleigh sold the Canal Road property to live in the senior complex at Spruce Circle. He died in a house fire there when he was 84. Some of his paintings were destroyed in the fire. Goreleigh and his wife Estelle are buried in the Princeton Cemetery; the couple had no children.

During Goreleigh’s lifetime his artwork was exhibited in museums in Paris and Helsinki, and in the Baltimore Art Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem. His work has been exhibited alongside that of Alma Thomas, Elizabeth Catlett, Beauford Delaney, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and others. It lives on in the collection of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, Nassau Presbyterian Church, the Arts Council of Princeton, the historical societies of Princeton and West Windsor, the New Jersey State Museum, and in many private collections.

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