Children preserve their optometrist father’s legacy: Dr. Elton Gumbel (1921-2006) was also a prolific self-taught artist.
When Dr. Elton Gumbel died in 2006, he left behind hundreds of paintings and drawings. Many people knew Gumbel as an optometrist. He was the first black optometrist in Kansas City and the first licensed black optometrist in the state of Missouri. But he was also a prolific self-taught artist, who never had an exhibit or any other public exposure of his work.
Although he had no formal training, Gumbel’s work is not unsophisticated. His paintings display a sure command of composition, lively brushwork and conversance in a variety of styles. Hints of van Gogh and Matisse, Renoir and Rouault, percolate through his paintings; a willingness to experiment keeps the work from becoming formulaic.
In a recent interview, Elton Gumbel, Jr. and his sister Roberta shared their memories of their father, surrounded by his work in Roberta’s Brookside home.
Tell me about your dad.
Roberta: He grew up in New Orleans where he worked on Mardi Gras floats. He apprenticed as a carpenter before he was drafted into the army in World War II.
Elton: After the war, he went to Chicago. He almost became a dentist, but optometry school answered his application. When he finished school, he was told that there was no black optometrist in Kansas City.
What happened when he got here?
Elton: His first office was at 18th and Vine in the Lincoln building. Then he moved to a house at 31st Street near Indiana. In the back kitchen of the house, he had his file cabinets and desk and an easel set up. When he didn’t have patients, he sat in the back room and painted. He did the majority of his artwork at the office.
What was it like, having an artist for a Dad?
Elton: If he wanted to tell us a story, he’d sit there and draw it. If he wanted to explain anything he’d draw it. He’d say, “Come, I show you.”
What kinds of things did he paint?
Roberta: Over his lifetime, he drew and painted and sketched everything: landscapes, still lifes, portraits. He painted a lot of buckets, lamps, keys, barns and lanterns—things from life in the country, all painted from imagination. It was his vision of things. There was no pain and suffering in his art. Instead, he wanted to paint things he saw in his mind. There’s a lot of symbolism, and he expected you to draw your own conclusions from his depictions of streams of light, a gentle breeze coming through a window.
Tell me about his materials.
Elton: In different works he used paint, crayon and ink, and he drew and painted on a variety of surfaces, including huge sheets of cardboard that came to the U.S. Army Map Service in-between sheets of film.
While Dad was working as an optometrist he also worked as a cartographer for the Army Map Service. That was his 9 to 5 job from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. He practiced optometry for 54 years, and retired at age 83.
Six children, two jobs. How did he do it?
Elton: His thing was to create or build. He could build a cabinet or put a room on the back of the house. With all the things he was responsible for, he had time to do the art he enjoyed. In our house his work hung on every wall.
Tell me about some of the pieces that stand out to you.
Roberta: We all have our favorites. In Mom’s sitting room there is a portrait of a man with a hat on. We kids thought it was a frog; my aunt thought it was Christ. On that hutch in my living room is a self-portrait. As a child, I used to call it “the devil.” Also, I wanted the painting he did of 18th and Vine—it’s there in the corner—but he said, “you can’t have it. It’s not finished.” I didn’t get it until after he died at age 85.
Where is his work now?
Elton: Most of it is carefully stored at my house; some of it was divided among my siblings, who each chose a few favorites. I did a book of his work and gave copies as Christmas gifts to my brothers and sisters. And I’ve recently completed a second book. It fell on us to name his artworks, so most of the titles are posthumous.
The black and white works in the second book are extraordinary.
Elton: In his last ten years, when he was in his ‘70s, he did numerous works in black ink on white paper. He’d first draw a circle, using an 8- or 10-inch plate, and then create a scene within it.
The designer Kirk Davis made me aware of your collection. Not many people know about it.
Elton: My Dad never had time to become famous. He didn’t have time for marketing, although he would show his work to people. He gave very few paintings away, and he didn’t sell his work in his lifetime. I don’t think that’s why he did it. It falls on us to gather his art and see what we can do to present it. o
Artworks of Dr. Elton J. Gumbel used in this article are courtesy of the Gumbel family. All rights reserved. Use or reproduction without permission is prohibited.