top of page

Robert Chester Thomas (1924 – 1987)

Two Figures, 1949, ebony wood, 24 x 7 x 5 inches, unsigned, but comes from Thomas' daughters and includes a copy of a 1949 photo of this work listing the artist's name, title of work and date


Robert Chester Thomas was a California sculptor. A native of Wichita, Kansas, Thomas moved with his family to Southern California as a child. During World War II, he joined the army and served for a time in the European theater. When he returned to California, he studied sculpture with David Green in Pasadena in 1946 and 1947, before taking advantage of the GI Bill in 1948 to study with Ossip Zadkine in Paris. He first exhibited at Galerie St. Placide as part of an exhibition of American artists working in late 1940s Paris, as well as at the International Salon de Mai in 1949. Thomas likely sculpted Two Figures while still in Paris studying with Kadkine. The direct carved ebony wood, cubist angles, dark patination, interlocking forms, negative space and ovoid heads all owe a debt to Thomas' teacher.

Thomas returned to the US and earned his BA at the University of California Santa Barbara in 1951 and his MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1952. He taught there for a year before returning to Santa Barbara to join the University of California Santa Barbara faculty in 1954 where taught until his death in 1987. A 1956 Santa Barbara News Press article described Thomas' teaching methods: "His beginning students are given a series of formalized problems to familiarize them with three dimensional shapes. Later in the course they work from the figure by drawing and modeling. Advanced sculpture students are required to complete four to eight major projects of their choosing in various sculptural media. Los Angeles Times art critic Henry Seldis, in a letter supporting Thomas' professorship, noted "I am glad to note that rather than impose his own artistic visions and techniques on those he teaches, he makes it possible for them to arrive at a convincing idiom of their own." Thomas had a meaningful impact beyond his students. Sculptor Marc di Suvero credited his decision to become a sculptor to Thomas.

From the 1940s through 1960 Thomas worked in a variety of media, including marble, wood, terracotta, greenstone, bronze, iron, firebrick and welded steel before dedicating his practice primarily to cast bronze in the 1960s. He later worked in glazed and unglazed clay, making a series of small reliefs. In an introduction to a retrospective of Thomas' work, Henry Seldis noted: "Because of his strong urge to explore every avenue of his art and craft, [he] presents us with many well-mastered techniques of sculpture but with varied creative concepts that give [his work] a vigorous diversity without making it in any way eclectic."

Thomas exhibited widely during his long career, including at the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Exhibitions, the La Joya Art Center, and the California State Fair. He also showed at a number of commercial galleries, including Esther Robles Gallery (Los Angeles), the Esther Bear Gallery (Santa Barbara), the Adele Bednarz Galleries (Los Angeles), the Meredith Niles Gallery (Santa Barbara), the Bradley Galleries (Santa Barbara), and Delphine Gallery (Santa Barbara). He is listed in Who Was Who in American Art and other standard references.


bottom of page