Kermit Oliver is an acclaimed painter and the only American designer for the famed French fashion house Hermès. He's also been a postal worker in Texas for more than thirty years. I profiled him for Texas Monthly 's October issue, and seven hours worth of interview tape with him later, I still can't say I know the man. But my admiration for his work has only grown.
During my visits to his east Waco home, I took a few photos with my iPhone. Although I was only using a camera phone, the beauty of the work still comes through:
Headboard: Khristopher is the work that secured Kermit's collaboration with Hermès. The 1975 circular acrylic painting of animals and his son Khristopher within a wood headboard hangs in Kermit's cramped studio, a ten-by-ten room he calls his "monk's cell." The painting is one of his wife's favorite pieces, and seeing as it forever changed their life, he has always refused to sell it.
Kermit is known for his elaborate frames, some of which he creates before conceiving the paintings that will go in them. (In this work, the headboard serves as a frame—Kermit cut and sanded each piece of pine before placing it in the parquet you see here.) It was because of his frames that former Neiman Marcus executive vice president, Lawrence Marcus, referred him to Hermès was looking for an American designer. And as soon as the president of U.S. operations at the time, Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, saw the headboard at Kermit's home in Houston, the deal was sealed.
Kermit's first assignment, a portrait of a Pawnee chief, led to fifteen other original scarf designs , including his blockbuster Faune et Flore du Texas (1987). He recently told me he has three additional scarves in the works: a female Native American portrait; a celebration of Kingsville's famed King Ranch, due out early next year; and a carousel theme, which he has just started to research.
Kermit's painting of his father is one of the first works I noticed in his rambling prairie-style home. It hung in his living room. As I spoke to Kermit, he looked over my shoulder toward it often. Kermit painted the fifty-by-forty-inch portrait, t itled K.J.'s Deamon, in the 1970s from his memory. Kermit grew up in Refugio, where his father was a working cowboy who taught his four sons to work with their hands and to hunt. On the farm, the routine slaughter and sacrifice made a deep impression on him, and they have become themes prevalent in his work.
When I followed Kermit into his studio for our final interview in August, he sat before this uncompleted painting, which will be part of his December show at the Hooks-Epstein Galleries in Houston. The scene is startling. The Virgin Mary figure resembles his wife, Katie. She holds a sheet-covered corpse. Kermit told me that the body beneath the sheet is his son, Khristian, who was executed in 2009. Lording over the back of the painting, in a deep-claret western outfit is Governor Rick Perry. He holds sunflowers. In true Kermit fashion, animals, each ripe with significance, are all over the painting. There's a heron symbolizing rebirth; a pit bull standing for "sin-eating"; and, near Perry, a buzzard signaling death. Perry's clothing, by the way, holds deep meaning, too. He is in the painting to represent the "cowboy ethos." The work did not have a name that day, but he told me what it was about. "It’s the betrayal, as well as the redemption and resurrection. The new day." Now it has been titled: Shod in Such Pomp and Colorful Fleurons Would Pride Even Phoebus Vain .
Read the whole story about the mysterious world of Kermit Oliver here.