Portrait of the Artist as a Postman

The strange and secret world of Kermit Oliver.

In July 2011, more than five thousand miles east of Waco, an assistant designer at the Hermès silk factory, in Lyon, France, unfurled a ninety-by-ninety-centimeter square of the company’s famous silk twill. It was lushly illustrated with the plants and animals of Texas. “This is my favorite scarf,” she said, pointing out the highlights to those of us assembled at the factory for a tour. The scarf, called Faune et Flore du Texas, was designed for the state’s sesquicentennial and had all the romantic detail of a vintage encyclopedia illustration. The assistant designer ran her finger around a ring of prickly pear that encircled an enormous turkey. Her hand brushed over nests of mallards, clusters of raccoons, a rearing mustang, a wild hare, and a stoic-looking Longhorn. More than fifty native animals coexisted within a viny ivy frame that blossomed with firewheels, Texas  bindweed, and a particularly lovely downward-facing sunflower.

There are few labels higher on fashion’s Mount Olympus than Hermès. The 175-year-old luxury goods company is known for its handmade handbags, such as the Kelly (which is named after Grace Kelly) and the Birkin (which is named after Jane Birkin, costs between $9,000 and $150,000, and once had a legendary multiple-year waiting list). But perhaps its most coveted and collectible items—and the reason for my visit to the factory—are its $410 silk scarves. Since 1937 the company’s scarf sales have exploded; it is estimated that Hermès now sells one every twenty seconds. Jackie Onassis used an Hermès scarf to hold back her hair, and Princess Grace slung her broken arm in one. Each scarf design is an original commissioned artwork, screened on 450,000 meters’ worth of mulberry moth silkworm thread, and the scarf’s hem is hand-stitched—a process, legend has it, that was once handled by nuns.

The artist behind Faune et Flore du Texas, said the assistant designer, first caught the attention of Hermès in the eighties. According to company lore, Jean-Louis Dumas, the CEO at the time, loved driving across the United States. On one trip, while visiting Texas, he encountered a painter whose work was so bold but simple, so impressive in its portrayal of animals, that Dumas immediately commissioned a scarf design. That scarf had since been reissued several times and always sold out. The painter’s style was so popular that in the past thirty years, the company had commissioned fifteen more original designs from him. He was the only American artist ever to have designed scarves for Hermès.

Who was this man? I asked the assistant designer. He was very special, she told me. His name was Kermit Oliver, and he was a postal worker in his late sixties who lived in Waco. 

On a stormy morning this past April, I went to the rougher part of East Waco in search of Kermit Oliver. In the nine months since I’d first heard his name, I’d learned some more about him. Throughout the seventies, he had been an accomplished though somewhat eccentric painter in Houston, significant enough to have warranted a 2005 retrospective from the Museum of Fine Arts there. Still, very little was written about him—a couple of stories in the Houston papers, a brief 1989 profile in People, and that was about it. I called Kermit’s gallery, Hooks-Epstein, and talked to the owner, Geri Hooks, who gave me Kermit’s phone number (after getting his permission) but warned that he was not going to be easy to contact. She also told me that it was Lawrence Marcus (brother of Stanley Marcus, longtime president of Neiman Marcus) who had orchestrated the partnership between Kermit and Hermès, so I called up Lawrence’s wife, Shelby, who is the aunt of a friend of mine. She confirmed that he would be difficult to get to know (“Very few people can say they are close to Kermit Oliver”) and advised me to let him do the talking. After several calls to Kermit and his wife, Katie, they finally agreed to see me. 

I drove south from Dallas under an overcast sky and made my way through Waco to Clifton Street. As I rolled slowly down the potholed road toward his turn-of-the-century white prairie house, two women walking barefoot and drinking beers in the middle of the street tried to wave me off. “Those people are crazy,” one of them said, gesturing toward the house. “They only come out at night.” Few in the neighborhood knew who lived in that white house behind the imposing red-brick wall, and even fewer knew about the art that was created inside. A customer at Jasper’s Barbecue, just down the street, said all he knew was that the house was always lit up at night. 

Kermit’s wife met me at the door. She wore dish-washing gloves and an apron decorated with red chile peppers, and her hair was up in a turquoise bandanna. “You know,” she said, “we’re not visiting people.” But she welcomed me in, offered me some orange juice, and led me down the creaky plank floors of a dark, cramped hallway. The walls were covered with art: images of exotic animals, elegant ranch-life pastorals in vibrant colors, biblical allegories. We passed a framed scarf, Kermit’s first for Hermès. Displayed behind dusty glass, it was a portrait of a Pawnee Indian chief on a bright-orange background, surrounded by childlike drawings of galloping horses with flag-toting riders.

Kermit was sitting in the living room, in an armchair covered by a red-and-white quilt. He stood up when I arrived. He was small-framed, with salt-and-pepper hair combed off his forehead. Dressed in loose khakis and an untucked plaid oxford shirt, he gave the impression of a small-town surgeon who’d just gotten off the late shift. His eyeglasses were in his hands, which continuously fidgeted while the rest of him stood still. “Why do you want to talk to me?” he asked. 

I stammered something about his story, how interesting it was. He looked skeptical. “Why don’t you tell me what my story is,” he said. I

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