KAILUA-KONA — Robert Thomas Kitchen’s loved ones describe him as humble, shy, a daredevil, and, above all else, gifted.
The Kailua-Kona artist spent his life perfecting his craft and finding his niche as the artist who could recreate more than just the look of Hawaii into a painting — he could recreate a feeling.
“This guy was artistic, in everything he did,” said Nicole Gomes, Kitchen’s daughter. “We would be driving, and I would ask him what he was looking at, and he would say, ‘I’m just looking at the colors of those leaves, and trying to figure out how I could apply that to my canvas. Which colors I would have to mix to get that type of green, or the blue in the sky, or the softness in that cloud.’ So he was an artist in everything that he did.”
Kitchen, known in the art world as Robert Thomas, died April 23, 2019, at the age of 71, from acute leukemia, a rapidly spread cancer. The painter had made the Big Island his home for more than 40 years, and his paintings were famous for their realistic depictions of the landscape, ocean and animals of the Hawaiian islands.
It was Kitchen’s aesthetic and personal touch of meeting his fans that pushed him to becoming one of the island’s biggest art stars.
“People would come to Hawaii and they would have these experiences,” Gomes said. “People got touched by being here in this piece of paradise, and I feel like they could relate to his work in that way.”
Gomes recalled Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and current sports television analyst, as being one collector of her father’s artwork. Gomes said she met Bradshaw’s daughter once, and she heaped on the praise for Kitchen’s talent.
“Her dad was such a famous person that everyone knew him, but when she saw my dad, it was like she had seen a star for the first time,” Gomes said.
Kitchen was born Jan. 8, 1948, in Pasadena, California. The artist spent his young life in Glendora, California, and was one of nine children. His mother was a painter, and taught him the basics when he a child, but his first calling as a professional artist was through metal sculptures.
“His dad got him a regular welding job, so he got really good at that, metal welding,” said Vicky Kitchen, his wife. “So when he went to an art show in Southern California and saw this sculpture that this man had made, he thought, ‘I could do that.’”
Kitchen sold his first sculpture for $500, the first of many big ticket sales he would have as an artist.
He eventually found himself in Hawaii, after buying a one-way ticket for himself and a friend. He started his life in Hawaii on Oahu before moving to the Big Island.
Kitchen continued his metal sculpture career until a back injury left him temporarily disabled. Leaving the manual labor of metalwork behind, Kitchen picked up painting.
“Yeah, he had a gift, but he developed it,” Vicky Kitchen said. “He was painting constantly.”
Currently, Kitchen’s art can be found in two galleries in Kailua-Kona: Colors of Paradise, Inc. in Coconut Grove Marketplace along Alii Drive and Robert Thomas Fine Art and Gifts in the Keauhou Shopping Center.
Robert Thomas Fine Art and Gifts is co-owned by Gomes. Colors of Paradise is owned by his daughter Liz Young, and her husband, the artist Ernest Young.
“(Liz’s) husband learned to paint from my dad,” Gomes said. “He taught him every brush stroke, and now he has the gift, too.”
In a prepared statement by Liz Young and Ernest Young, Kitchen’s daughter credited her father for passing on his talents to Ernest.
“He set my husband and I up in such an incredible situation, he took time to mentor my husband and share all of his painting skills and now we have someone that can carry on my dad’s talent and continue to share his gift with others,” Young said.
Robert Thomas Kitchen and Vicky Kitchen met in Oahu, and were married June 7, 1975. Together, they had three daughters and three sons. Vicky Kitchen said all of their children inherited Robert’s creative genes, whether through art or music. His son Michael Kitchen, a West Hawaii Today employee, said he wants to play music now out in the community, and show the world what he can do, like his father.
“I’m so inspired by him,” Michael Kitchen said. “I play in church on Sundays, but now I want to start playing out and about just to see what happens, and not be afraid to go for it.”
The family said when he wasn’t painting, Kitchen enjoyed being in the ocean, with activities such as bodysurfing and night diving.
Kitchen was also a veteran of the U.S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. Kitchen’s burial will be noon to 1 p.m. May 23 at the West Hawaii Veterans Cemetery, across from Kua Bay. A celebration of his life will follow 2-5 p.m. at Calvary Community Church, with light refreshments served.
The family described Kitchen as a faithful Christian who was humble about his talent as an artist.
“Every time that someone complimented his paintings, it was as if it was the first person to ever say it,” Vicky Kitchen said, “It was like he had never heard it before. He was so humble.”