Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 38
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
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“Part of the Fabric of this Town”: Rex Goreleigh Exhibition Dazzles Historical Society Patrons

Dilshanie Perera

A retrospective of painter, watercolorist, and printmaker Rex Goreleigh’s work currently adorns the walls of the Historical Society of Princeton (HSP), with pieces on loan from the private collection of Toni Morrison, Joseph Moore, Marvin and Ingrid Reed, and the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, among others.

Born in 1902, Mr. Goreleigh moved to Princeton in 1947 to head Princeton Group Arts, an organization devoted to fostering community-wide artistic production, and hosting art exhibitions and events.

“This was a new venture for Princeton, because at the time, the elementary school was still segregated, as were restaurants, and housing,” explained HSP Curator of Collections Eileen Morales. “Princeton Group Arts really wanted to bridge that divide,” she added, characterizing it as a precursor to the Princeton Plan, which integrated the elementary school. Mr. Goreleigh’s early paintings, done in Europe and the United States, greet the viewer entering the exhibition space, as do two 1943 paintings from the “Tobacco Series,” which was likely inspired by time spent in North Carolina, Ms. Morales explained. “This was a prelude to his interest in migrant workers.”

In 1973, those themes were expanded into a series of bold serigraphs, or silkscreen images. In the gallery, they surround an oil painting from the early ‘70s, Field Workers (Tomato Pickers), inspired by the African American migrant laborers Mr. Goreleigh encountered while visiting nearby Roosevelt.

When Princeton Group Arts folded in 1954 because of insufficient funding, Mr. Goreleigh opened his “Studio-on-the-Canal” on Canal Street off of Alexander Road, to host workshops for children and adults. Area artists, including painter Hughie Lee-Smith, printmaker Stefan Martin, sculptor Glenn Cullen, and illustrator James Edwards, taught classes and collaborated with Mr. Goreleigh there.

With his own work at the time focused on representational subjects, and commissioned portraiture, Mr. Goreleigh’s interest in migrant workers blossomed.

“The series depicts a wide range of the experience of the workers,” Ms. Morales said, pointing out paintings of migrant workers harvesting crops, as well as those depicting the poor housing conditions workers had to endure.

When asked whether Mr. Goreleigh would call himself an activist as well as an artist, Ms. Morales said that he really thought of himself as “painting the human condition,” giving voice to those marginalized in society.

One large oil painting from 1971, The Social Hour, shows migrant workers in a more joyous setting, dancing in the First Presbyterian Church in Cranbury.

Mr. Goreleigh depicted the “often-overlooked aspects of the African American experience,” one exhibition sign reads, all while being a vibrant presence in Princeton. He was even appointed to the Arts Council’s Board in 1969.

Curator of Education Jennifer Jang said it was inspiring to know that Mr. Goreleigh “was a part of those early efforts to offer racially integrated classes,” and that change did arrive as a result of his and other like-minded efforts in the community.

A resident of Princeton for 40 years, Mr. Goreleigh “really became part of the fabric of this town,” Ms. Morales asserted.

“Rex Goreleigh: Revisited in Princeton” is on view at the Historical Society of Princeton at 158 Nassau Street on Tuesday through Sunday from noon until 4 p.m., and will run through January 18, 2010.

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