When an exhibit opens at the Historical Society of Princeton, it’s almost like a return to the past. Or a way to revisit the past, and make the past present. Such was the case with the Rex Goreleigh exhibit. I hadn’t been around for the days when Goreleigh’s spirit enriched the Princeton community, but by studying his paintings at the Historical Society, and reading about him, I felt like Goreleigh had come back to us. I had a chance to understand his impact on this world.
Today, sadly, I received news that the exhibit will come to an end Jan. 18. Oh, no, seems unfair to lose him again. However, there’s still time to see the exhibit, and hopefully we can keep him alive on the blogosphere.
Looking at the richly colored paintings of Rex Goreleigh (1902-1986), one gets a sense he treasured the subject matter – farming culture in the mid- to late-20th century Princeton area – he was chronicling. Although life as a migrant worker wasn’t easy, Goreleigh captured the joy, as well as the sorrows, of these lives.
The painting that perhaps best combines this mixed feeling 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, waiting for what comes next. It is similar to the emotion immigrants experience: escaping hardships in their land of origin, yet encountering discrimination and the feeling of not fitting in the new land. This betwixt-and-between is a kind of homelessness.
Many visitors to the historical society remember Goreleigh from his days in Princeton. They may have taught, or taken classes, at his Studio on the Canal. That legendary institution was in the garage next to Goreleigh’s home on Canal Road, and even the present occupant of that home has come with fascination to view the exhibit and learn about Princeton’s famous African-American artist.
Born near Philadelphia, Rex grew up in the tri-state area and dabbled in theater before discovering himself as a visual artist. He portrayed himself in a production of Harlem at the Apollo Theatre in New York.
A young Goreleigh met Diego Rivera and had the opportunity to watch him at work on the Rockefeller Center murals. Through that connection he also met Ben Shahn, who would go on to create the mural in a Roosevelt public school, subsequently turning Roosevelt into an art community.
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, at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, and a program for children and adults in North Carolina.
To further his art education, Goreleigh spent a year in Europe, studying with Andre Lhote in Paris and Leo Z. Moll in Germany (he also studied with Mr. Moll in New York). While in Finland, he painted “Senegalese Woman (Paris),” on loan to the exhibit from the collection of author Toni Morrison. The Senegalese woman wears a hat with a cocked brim, and that hat says everything about her attitude.
In a painting of the marketplace in Helsinki, “he started to use color that runs throughout his career,” says HSP Curator Eileen Morales. “There are undefined figures that reappear in some of his other work.”
Although Goreleigh may have felt uncomfortable among all those pale blond people – “He wrote how he stuck out like a sore thumb,” says Ms. Morales – he had an air that allowed him to move in all circles and enabled him to flourish in Princeton when schools were still segregated.
“He bridged that barrier, and that’s why he was tapped to be director of Princeton Group Arts,” says Ms. Morales. Princeton Group Arts was an organization that emphasized inclusivity in teaching theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, writing and crafts.
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. So Goreleigh set up the Studio on the Canal to continue workshops in painting, printmaking and ceramics and ran it until 1978. Some of the instructors, according to a brochure in a display case, were Glenn Cohen (sculptor), Hughie Lee Smith (painter), Vincent Ceglia (painter) and Stefan Martin (printmaker).
Goreleigh also served as the director of the arts and crafts program in Roosevelt schools in 1955-56, and on the board of the Arts Council of Princeton. He taught at Princeton Adult School, the Neuropsychiatric Institute in Skillman and Trenton school district. In 1976, eight of his works were in an exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, Fragments of American Life, and in 1980, the New Jersey Historical Society gave him a solo exhibit.
“When he died, he didn’t get the critical analysis that others do after passing, probably because he didn’t have an agent or a dealer,” says Ms. Morales. “He was so well-known and well-liked that it’s too bad his work didn’t get such prices at auction as Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden’s did, so we are glad we can (showcase him) now.”
On view at HSP is a tobacco series Goreleigh illustrated for Britannica Junior encyclopedia, inspired by his experiences in North Carolina. These colorful images include a widow who continued raising her crop after her husband’s death, even sitting out there 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. He visited and painted farms in Cranbury, Roosevelt and Hightstown. “He said he was trying to depict all aspects of the human condition,” says Ms. Morales, who has been researching this exhibit for a year. 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.
“It’s one of his greatest legacies – he didn’t see himself as a social commentator, but he played an important role (in chronicling) labor history,” Ms. Morales adds.
His 1971 “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 pure 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,” we see a woman outside one of these structures with her aluminum wash tubs as a child plays nearby.
“We’ve framed the exhibit with stories of little known African-American history, and all those he taught and touched,” says Ms. Morales. “He left behind a great legacy.”
- Rex Goreleigh: Revisited in Princeton is on view at the Historical Society of Princeton, 158 Nassau St., Princeton, through Jan. 18, 2010. Gallery hours: Tues.-Sun. noon-4 p.m. 609-921-6748; www.princetonhistory.org.