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Like many other artists employed under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, Rex Goreleigh relocated from his home in the urban Northeast to a distant city to do his job. In Goreleigh’s case, that city was Greensboro, North Carolina, where, beginning in 1938, he taught at the Agricultural and Technical State University of North Carolina and at nearby Bennett College for women. He worked alongside fellow WPA artist Norman Lewis, and together the pair operated an art center housed within the Carnegie Negro Library. Goreleigh’s time in the South inspired a series of gouache illustrations for the Britannica Junior Encyclopedia.

Russell "Rex" Gordon Goreleigh was born in Penllyn, Pennsylvania, but later lived in nearby Philadelphia and then in Washington, DC, where he attended high school. As a child, he turned to art as a means of coping with a speech impediment, especially after being orphaned. In 1920, he moved to New York in order to study acting at the famous Lafayette Theater in Harlem. After seeing one of the Harmon Foundation’s exhibitions of African American artists’ works, Goreleigh determined to become a painter. While taking courses at the Art Students League, he supported himself as a restaurant waiter. In 1933, he happened to wait on Diego Rivera, the renowned Mexican muralist, who invited the young artist to observe him execute murals for Rockefeller Center.

Goreleigh traveled abroad in 1936, going first in Paris where he studied with André Lhote and then to Germany for instruction under Leo Z. Moll. He also spent time in Helsinki, where “he started to use color that runs throughout his career.” Goreleigh thrived in Europe; while he recalled that “he stuck out like a sore thumb,” he reported feeling more welcome than he did in his segregated home country. Upon his return to the United States later that same year, Goreleigh was one of several black artists chosen by the Federal Art Project to establish community art centers in cities across the country—a position that would introduce him to fellow African American artists such as Charles Alston, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence, as well as WPA muralist Ben Shahn.

Goreleigh taught for a brief time at the Harlem YMCA before departing for Greensboro. Around 1940, he left Greensboro for Chicago and served as the manager of the South Side Community Art Center—the only WPA community center still in operation—where his colleagues included Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, and Margaret Burroughs. To supplement his income, Goreleigh was employed as an art coordinator for a Chicago advertising agency. His watercolors were presented in two influential exhibitions during this period: the Baltimore Museum of Art’s Contemporary Negro Art (1939); and the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro held at Tanner Art Galleries in Chicago in conjunction with the American Negro Exposition (1940). 

Due in large part to his success in Chicago, Goreleigh was recruited to be the first director of Princeton Group Arts in New Jersey, an organization dedicated to promoting racial and religious integration through teaching theater, music, dance, painting, sculpture, writing, and crafts. Founded by a collaborative of Princeton University faculty and congregants of the local Jewish and Quaker communities in 1947, the center welcomed over two hundred students each week, many attending on scholarship. According to a 1952 article in Jet magazine, “In Goreleigh’s classes, it is commonplace to see Negro automobile mechanics discussing techniques with debutantes.” The organization closed in 1954 due to a lack of funds.

Undeterred, Goreleigh established the Studio-on-the-Canal, where he held workshops in painting, printmaking, and ceramics through 1978; he counted Hughie Lee-Smith among his students. During his years in Princeton, Goreleigh earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Rutgers University. He directed the arts and crafts program for the Roosevelt Public School in 1955–1956 and later taught at Princeton Adult School, the Neuropsychiatric Institute in Skillman, and in the Trenton school district. In 2018, the Historical Society of Princeton organized Rex Goreleigh: Migrant Worker’s Witness, highlighting a theme the artist had initially explored in North Carolina and subsequently pursued by visiting farms in New Jersey. The exhibition’s curator Stephanie Schwartz commented: “Goreleigh’s paintings do a good job of humanizing these workers, showing how they found joy. He painted all aspects of the migrant worker’s life.” The artist’s life ended tragically in 1986 when a fire broke out in his residence at a senior citizen living center.