Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 22
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
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Neighborhood Exhibit With Quilt Anchors Reopened Arts Council’s Robeson Center

Ellen Gilbert

A permanent neighborhood exhibition, with the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood Quilt as its centerpiece, will take a place of pride when the Arts Council of Princeton opens the doors of its newly renovated and expanded Paul Robeson Center for the Arts next Thursday.

Neighborhood Committee members Shirley Satterfield and Joanna Kendig have been active participants in planning the exhibit, along with Eileen Morales of the Historical Society of Princeton and Michael Jacobs from the Princeton University Art Museum.

The permanent neighborhood exhibit, which, in addition to the quilt, includes many early photographs contributed by the Historical Society, dovetails with the Center’s opening exhibit, “Return: Home.” Curated by Arts Council Executive Director Jeff Nathanson on the occasion of the Arts Council’s return to downtown Princeton after two and a half years in temporary locations, “Return: Home” will feature eleven New Jersey-affiliated artists who explore the meaning of “home” from personal, political, and cultural perspectives.

In figuring out the best approach for the neighborhood exhibit, said Ms. Morales, it became obvious that the building was “the lynchpin,” reflecting significant changes in the community over the years. In the 1930s, for example, a $57,000 WPA grant supported construction of the Witherspoon YMCA, the first building on what is now the Arts Council site. It was “a real community center,” noted Ms. Morales, and photographs in the exhibit reflect the various committees and associations involved with the “Y” at the time.

Photographs of Paul Robeson’s family, donated by Princeton High School, are also featured in the exhibit. Ms. Morales described these photographs as reflecting Mr. Robeson’s “relationship with the community and with arts education.”

PHS is also in evidence in a photograph of the social “canteen” from the 1950s. Ms. Satterfield, a sixth-generation Princetonian, recalls that teen heart-throb Frankie Avalon once visited the canteen, which was sometimes held above Bamberger’s (now McCaffrey’s).

Ms. Satterfield also recently reminisced about the African American artist Rex Goreleigh, who came to Princeton in 1946, when he was called by the new Princeton Group Arts organization to be an instructor and later, the executive director of the integrated art school for children. Mr. Goreleigh was already a well-established painter who had studied in Europe and at the Art Institute of Chicago. His work was exhibited at the Baltimore Art Museum and other art institutions around the U.S. In Princeton, Mr. Goreleigh began by exhibiting pictures in Palmer Square, Ms. Satterfield said, before he moved to a studio on Spring Street. Although the school closed in 1953, Goreleigh continued his involvement in local arts organizations, including the Princeton Art Association, and as an early board member for the Arts Council of Princeton. His Studio-on-the-Canal, at the foot of Alexander Street, offered instruction in painting, drawing, printing, and ceramics for 24 years before he perished in a fire there that also destroyed many of his paintings

The centerpiece of the new building’s permanent Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood exhibit, an original, hand-crafted quilt created through the transfer of over ninety photographs that together illustrate the history of the neighborhood, was originally unveiled in 2005. The photographs were contributed, solicited, and selected by four neighborhood residents, Ms. Satterfield, Minnie Craig, Lois Craig, and Cynthia (Chip) Fisher, who chose the quilt material and determined the order of the images as well. The collected signatures of many of the then-current residents of the neighborhood appear on the smaller squares on the perimeter of the quilt, which was crafted by local quilter and educator Gail Mitchell. Photographs incorporated into the quit include images of Witherspoon Street in the early 1920s, Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church (founded in 1840), children from the Witherspoon School for Colored Children in 1904, houses that were moved in order to build Palmer Square, and many portraits, including two of Paul Robeson.

At the 2005 celebration the quilt’s creators were on hand to share their knowledge of the neighborhood and the historical context of the quilt. During that afternoon, long-time residents of the neighborhood who had not yet signed the quilt added their names. One imagines that in its new, permanent home, the quilt will once again evoke many memories, while teaching a younger generation about Princeton’s past.

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