New Deal muralist, World War II serviceman, and art educator, Reuben Jackson Gambrell, Jr. painted a wide range of subjects in a Realist vein. Early in his career his figures were robust, but by mid-career his shapes appeared cubistic.

Born and raised in Belton, South Carolina, a small town in the Piedmont region, Gambrell  excelled in his studies, making above average grades. He attended the University of South Carolina in Columbia and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934. It was not until his junior year that Gambrell began to take painting seriously. After graduation he pursued drawing and painting under Lamar Dodd, artist-in-residence at the University of Georgia in Athens, and he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1940, the first such degree awarded by the university. He stayed at the university as an instructor while taking courses at the Art Students League in New York.

While in graduate school Gambrell submitted a mural design to the Forty-Eight State Mural Competition sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, a New Deal program. His was a highly favored entry with a scene depicting a tobacco auction within a warehouse; although the public loved his design, it did not win the competition. Success came, however, in 1941 when Gambrell received the mural commission for the post office in Rockmart, Georgia, where the cement industry was the sole manufacturing company and the obvious theme for his painting, titled Kiln Room, Cement Plant. An imposing composition above the door to the postmaster’s office, it illustrates various activities related to the industry: in the center, an internal light source shows five men wearing overalls struggling with a piece of equipment, while on the right two men are stuffing bags with cement.

In 1942 Gambrell joined the military and was sent to the U.S. Army Air Corps Photography School located in Denver, Colorado. Upon graduation he was assigned to photo mapping squadrons and intelligence divisions in the South Pacific. These photography squadrons flew over enemy territory, taking photographs of targets, and assessing damage. One of Gambrell’s responsibilities was to interpret the aerial photographs of such South Pacific islands as the New Hebrides, Bougainville, and New Caledonia. While overseas, Gambrell wrote to Dodd asking for art supplies, and in return he sent back sketchbooks full of his surroundings and his fellow servicemen. They numbered over one hundred drawings and watercolors, which were published in the Atlanta Journal over a two-year period. Quite a few of these works were exhibited during the 1940s at university galleries and museums, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. As well, a selection of his works done during World War II is now overseen by the South Carolina Historic Aviation Foundation.

Reuben Gambrell remained in the Army Air Corps until October of 1945, when he returned to teaching at the University of Georgia. For a time, he taught in Savannah at the university’s extension campus and the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences where Myrtle Jones and Anna Hunter were among his students. By 1994, living in Columbia, South Carolina, his style shifted from American scene narrative imagery to focus on more modernist elements of line and shape.