Waco artist Kermit Oliver becomes the official Texas State Two-Dimensional Artist for 2017 on Thursday when the Texas State Legislature makes appointments to four state artist positions, but don’t expect the accomplished painter to toot his horn in self-congratulation, even if the honor puts him in the company of fellow state artists George Strait and Marcia Ball.
Instead, he is quick to shunt attention to those around him who champion his work, from Houston’s Hooks-Epstein Galleries Inc., his representative, to friends and acquaintances in Waco and across the state.
“I’m fortunate that people put me in a position where my work can be seen,” the soft-spoken artist said in an interview at his East Waco home. “Everything that has come to me is because people around me have worked to get it noticed.”
Oliver, 73, plans to pass on going to the Capitol for the occasion, just as the publicity-shy artist has done for many of the public honors and receptions throughout a career of more than 40 years. Even attending the receptions held on his behalf when he submits new work to Hooks-Epstein Gallery takes some effort for Oliver and his wife, Katie.
“Three hours in the public eye every two years is fine with me,” he said.
Joining Oliver as state artists named by the Legislature this year are George Strait, of San Antonio, Texas State Musician; Jenny Browne, of San Antonio, Texas Poet Laureate; and Beverly Penn, of Austin, Texas State Three-Dimensional Artist. Artists holding the honor for 2018 are Marcia Ball, of Austin, Texas State Musician; Sedrick Huckaby, of Benbrook, Texas State Two-Dimensional Artist; Beili Liu, of Austin, Texas State Three-Dimensional Artist; and Carol Coffee Reposa, of San Antonio, Texas Poet Laureate.
The state honor for Oliver comes less than a year after the national honor of having his painting “Tobias” exhibited at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Oliver, true to form, downplayed the honor.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever go and see it,” he said. “My work is there. My presence isn’t needed. It’s the luck of the draw for me. There are so many artists around who are worthy of that opportunity.”
Similarly, Oliver viewed his celebrated work as a designer of scarves for French fashion house Hermes — 17 highly prized designs over 32 years — as the happy circumstance of meeting Lawrence Marcus, of the Dallas-based upscale department store Neiman Marcus, at the time when Marcus’ acquaintances at Hermes were shopping for an American designer.
Oliver, born in Refugio and trained as an artist at Texas Southern University in Houston, moved his family in 1984 to Waco, where he worked for the U.S. Postal Service as a mail sorter on the night shift, spending his mornings as a painter.
He retired from the Postal Service three years ago and confesses that he misses the daily job for the time constraints it put on his painting, which made him better focused on his work. In fact, his advice to beginning artists is to find something else to pay the bills, so they can focus on their art for their sake.
“I tell them, ‘Get a job.’ It gives you a sense of independence,” he said.
Oliver has followed that inner voice for his career, creating remarkably detailed paintings and drawings whose subjects are chosen, and positioned, with deep thought to what they symbolize and represent.
A rabbit hangs next to a moth, but specifically a luna moth. A man standing in front of several banks of shrubbery is not a garden study, but one titled “Theseus and the Labyrinth.” The macaw in a painting is there not to add bright color but stands in the place where a dove might and, in Mayan culture, serves as a talking intermediary between heaven and earth.
“It’s the incongruity of images that speaks to me. It makes sense to me and, hopefully, stimulates others,” said the artist, in an erudite conversation that tripped easily from psychologist Carl Jung to philosopher Bertrand Russell to the Christian Scriptures, Buddhist thought, Jack Tresidder’s “The Complete Dictionary of Symbols” and the French philosopher and scientist Blaise Pascal.
In a world where chaos rules and evil is ever present, Oliver finds meaning in the commonalities of religions and philosophies, even as he considers himself agnostic at best.
Imagining the subjects and objects for his paintings, then arranging them and adjusting proportions prove much of the challenge in his work, technique merely what is needed to get expression to paper or canvas.
“Every work I do is a new problem. That gives your freshness,” he said.
“Art is a lie. It’s a lie, but a lie that leads to a truth.”