A woman in a bright blue dress and straw hat, under a blue cloud in a white sky, is tending a tobacco plant. Nearby, in “Field Workers (Tomato Pickers),” another painting by the late Rex Goreleigh (1902–1986), people wearing hats, mostly women and a few men, are filling bushels with red, juicy, ripe fruit. The sun lights the field as well as their colorful garments, offsetting their nutmeg-colored skin. In the background brush strokes suggest ramshackle cottages.
Goreleigh, who spent nearly 40 years in the Princeton area teaching and creating art, captured both the daily toil and simple joys of migrant workers, and his award-winning series helped to bring light to the difficult work and living conditions for migrant workers in central New Jersey.
“Rex Goreleigh: Migrant Worker’s Witness,” on view at the Historical Society of Princeton in the first floor hallway of the Updike farmhouse through August, pulls together a handful of works from the artist’s career that document both the everyday hard work and moments of joy experienced by African-American farm workers and others throughout the late 20th century.
This exhibition is presented in conjunction with the Princeton Migrations Project, a community-wide investigation of the theme of migration taking place throughout Princeton and spearheaded by the Princeton University Art Museum.
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, says Izzy Kasdin, executive director of the Historical Society. “They were picking up and moving (for the next job), bringing their children — it was challenging for the family.”
“Goreleigh’s paintings do a good job of humanizing these workers, showing how they found joy,” says historical society curator Stephanie Schwartz. “He painted all aspects of the migrant worker’s life.”
Arriving in Princeton in 1947, the then Chicago-based African-American artist Rex Goreleigh was recruited by a group of Princeton University professors and members of the Jewish and Quaker communities to form a racially and religiously integrated arts community.
Some may 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 off of Alexander Road.
Looking at the richly colored renderings in the Historical Society’s exhibit, one comprehends how Goreleigh treasured his subject matter, enabling him to see the celebrations amid the difficult conditions in the 1950s through the 1970s.
One painting that perhaps best combines this mixed feeling (not on view in this small exhibition) 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 evokes the emotion migrants 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.
The son of a doctor’s housemaid, Rex Goreleigh was born in Penllyn, Pennsylvania, where he took to art as a way of coping with a speech impediment. He drew and painted everything he saw. He moved to Philadelphia at the age of 15, when his housekeeper 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 Theater. But after attending a series of exhibitions of African-American art at the Harmon Foundation, he was inspired to learn how to paint and draw in time off from his job waiting tables.
Among the customers at those tables was prominent Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who gave Goreleigh the opportunity to watch him work on portraits meant for Rockefeller Center. In 1934, under the WPA, Goreleigh met and worked with noted artist Ben Shahn, who later created the WPA mural in Roosevelt Public School.
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 Andre 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),” now in the collection of author Toni Morrison, and started to use the color that runs throughout his career.
When he returned to the United States he taught at the Harlem YMCA and opened a short-lived arts center in Greensboro, North Carolina, with noted abstract artist Norman Lewis.
After a move to Chicago, where he established a reputation as the manager of the South Side Community Art Center, Goreleigh was tapped to direct Princeton Group Arts, an organization that was dedicated to promoting integration through teaching 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.
“In Goreleigh’s classes it is commonplace to see Negro automobile mechanics discussing techniques with debutantes,” according to a 1952 article in JET magazine. 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. “In a town where Negroes and whites otherwise live worlds apart, Goreleigh said changes which grew out of the group now reflect in other areas of community life.”
In an exhibition put on by Princeton Group Arts, a mosaic by Princeton Group Arts student Margot Einstein — daughter of Princeton’s famed physicist — was sold, according to the JET article.
Although Princeton Group Arts held such fundraisers as a Marian Anderson concert at McCarter Theater, it folded in 1954 due to 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 were Glenn Cohen (sculptor), Hughie Lee Smith (painter), Vincent Ceglia (painter), and Stefan Martin (printmaker).
During his time at Princeton, Goreleigh earned his bachelor’s degree with honors from Rutgers and 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 also 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 at the Princeton University Art Museum, “Fragments of American Life,” and in 1980 the New Jersey Historical Society gave him a solo exhibit.
His tobacco series comes from the illustrations he did 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 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 1960s. He visited and painted farms in Cranbury, Roosevelt, and Hightstown. The series started with a watercolor and grew to full-blown oil paintings, enabling him to get a grant from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts to support the series.
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.
“It’s important to remind people of New Jersey’s agricultural heritage — a good chunk of Princeton was farmland,” says Kasdin. “Not only is it part of the heritage but in some places it’s still very much present.”
“There’s a lot of preserved farmland now,” says Schwartz. “The New Jersey State Department of Agriculture has done a great job of preserving farmland — there are so many societal and environmental benefits, from making sure there is pervious surface to providing nutritious food, but now the challenge is to find people who will do the farm work.”
The Updike Farm, where the Historical Society makes its home on six-and-a-half remaining acres of the original 192, had been a family farm for generations, but sold off much of the land at the time Goreleigh was doing his work. “This is an example of preserved farmland,” adds Kasdin. “In 1892, when the Updikes moved here, 80 percent of the county was agricultural land. When we bought the farm, in 2004, it was down to 13 percent. The Updikes had chicken coops, which we had to take down, but we’re working on interpretive signage about how they adapted to the decline in farming.”
Goreleigh died in a house fire on Spruce Circle, where he lived in the senior citizen complex. He was 84. During his lifetime his artwork was exhibited in museums in Paris, Helsinki, and the Baltimore Art Museum, and is in the collection of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church and the Arts Council of Princeton, as well as many private collections.
Goreleigh and his wife, Estelle, are buried in Princeton Cemetery.
Rex Goreleigh: Migrant Worker’s Witness, Historical Society of Princeton, Updike Farm, 354 Quaker Road, Princeton. Through September 1, Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $4. Free hours Thursdays, 4 to 7 p.m. 609-921-6748 or www.princetonhistory.org