A conversation with Kermit Oliver: Retired postal worker, family man, and world-class artist

The Texas painter has never sought the spotlight, but he spoke with Texas Standard during a career retrospective exhibit in Waco.

By Michael MarksDecember 7, 2021 7:26 am,

Kermit Oliver is one of Texas’ finest artists.

He is the only American to design scarves for Hermès, the French fashion line. He was the first Black artist to be represented by a major gallery in Houston. And in 2017, he was named Texas State Artist of the year.

Still, you’d be excused for not knowing Kermit Oliver’s art, or even his name. It’s an understatement to say that he does not seek the limelight.

His art is now on display at Art Center Waco – the first exhibition in the museum’s new location. “Kermit Oliver:New Narratives, New Beginnings” includes more than 40 of Oliver’s paintings, some of which have never been shown to the public before.

Oliver spoke with Texas Standard’s Michael Marks about his life and career. Listen above for an edited version of the interview. The full version appears below, along with a transcript.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Standard: Do you mind telling me your name and what you do for a living?

Kermit Oliver: My name is Kermit O’Neil Oliver, and I’m a retired postal employee and a graduate of Texas Southern University. Art education and fine arts, double major. That’s about it. I mean, I live a very ordinary, quiet life. I’m from Refugio. And so we don’t see people. Very few people. You know, it’s just a quiet existence ever since I’ve been in school. I guess it’s been 59 years. That’s what we’ve done. Just been quiet and out of sorts.

Do you like that?

I like that. The privacy. Yes.

You mentioned Refugio. I’m really interested in that place and how you remember it. Can you tell me a little about what your childhood was like there?

It’s small, small, small, I think 3,000 people at the most, almost 3,500 people. It’s ranching, farming. It’s near the Gulf, we lived about 19, 17 miles from the Gulf, the closest spot, and it’s just a small town, that’s all.

And so you lived there with your family?


American painter Kermit Oliver
Patricia Lim/KUT

Who all lived there? Which family members?

We have extensive family. My parents and a couple of aunts and uncles and great aunts. I mean, it’s just a bevy of people.

How long had your people been there?

Do you know my father and mother moved there in ’40, I think it was ‘42. And I had other families who were there before then. But he was the oldest son of his mother, and he had to wait until his last brother, who was the youngest, graduated from high school, so he could deal with the things he had to do. And so he was given a job, a ranching job there in Refugio, and that’s why he moved there.

Were you an only child?

No, three other brothers: Kole, Kenneth and Keith.

All Ks?

All Ks. We were known as the K Oliver family, and we named our children with Ks. My son Kristopher, daughter Kristy and my other son, Khristian, and my wife’s name’s Katie, I lucked out on that.

Can you talk to me about your experience with the natural world in Refugio?

That’s about all that we had in Refugio to deal with, I mean, you go out into the wooded areas, you walk around and it was part of your life. You had animals. We always had a milk cow and a calf. And pigs, chickens. It was just a normal natural country life. And that’s about where it was.

Pieta, 1965-70 by Kermit Oliver
Patricia Lim/KUT

What was it like to grow up with brothers and have so much space? I would think as a child that might be idyllic in some ways.

Yes, it was. Matter of fact, near the last two years of my high school, I began a walkabout on my own, isolated by myself and my dog. But it was a more inspiring and exposing type of experience. That aloneness and that isolation. That’s why it’s not difficult for me to live that way in life. It was something that I was preparing for anyway.

So even when you were a child, could you feel that you preferred to be by yourself?

Oh, yes, very much so. I have to admit that intimate friendships, I think it was three or four, that I went from kindergarten through high school with. And so it was nothing… we played with kids in the neighborhood. We played from sunup to sundown. sometimes until 10 o’clock at night.

We had games, but that had its position and his place in my life. But when it got to me being with myself, it became more of a wholesome type thing because I became aware of myself more in terms of having to share and accommodate other people. We were always told we had to accommodate, that was how we were raised. You did not insist on your point of view. You were always going to be the one to make the sacrifice to…whether the child wanted to take your marbles or whether…anything, you had to make the sacrifice.

Kermit Oliver’s painting, “Child of the Branch” at Art Center Waco.
Patricia Lim/Texas Standard

And not so much being an adult, but it was in the Christian aspect that we were raised in that way. And so it wasn’t difficult at all. And all the experiences I had after that, it was always – this is a test of how you are as a human being. What are you willing to give up to accommodate a situation to make it smoother? And so to me, that was the basic Christian attitude, rather than all the other ideas or tenets that’s put forth, ideas of, how you deal with people.

Do you feel that in your artwork you have to accommodate others? Or do you think that that’s purely your own?

Well see that’s the conflict there. No, I don’t. And yes, I do.

I respect their intelligence, why they come to see the work, but I don’t intrude my meanings on view. They take control of the work. When you come and look at my work, I have no control with it. I can give emphasis of what my intent was. But that’s not important. What’s important is what you bring to the work and how you respond to it because you are working from your own experience and your compendium that you bring to whether it’s literate, or whatever.

So my idea is to present an image that is not so much accommodating, but it makes you stop and think about some other aspects of the experience that you’re seeing. An animal that’s in there, a flower or a tree. Anything. But you bring the narrative to the work. And what happens is, if I’m aware of the narrative it, it builds upon the meaning of the work itself. I don’t need to be aware, but the point is you bring your experience to the image and it enlarges its meaning. However your experience is, it could be vanity or extensive. That’s what the work is going to do.

Into The Woods, 2016 (left) Ephemera, 1999 (center) and For the Sake of a Sacred Conversation, 2008 (right) by Kermit Oliver.

How does it feel to be in a space like this, surrounded by your work where it is also designed to be consumed by other people? How does that feel to you?

Well, I become a viewer also, an observer. Most of these works I haven’t seen since I produced them. So it’s a renewal to me, and I say to myself, ‘You did that. You were adequate’. And that’s all I ever attempt to do is to present an adequate image to the viewer. And I’m never satisfied because I don’t know really what conclusion I want to come to the work, how I want to develop it. So it’s always a waiting, being consumed with something else. And the viewers would bring that something else to it and they come and say something to me about if I’m lucky enough to have a conversation.

And the meaning grows, and the work’s meaning enlarges, and that’s what art is supposed to be about. Everybody has a different response, and that gives meaning to it, and they’re going to talk to someone else and say this and this, and it’s a dialog that happens. That’s what the point is – the dialog. This is a leading motif that I present, and you take it and you say what it is. And many people say, ‘You know, I saw a car like that of the day and I never thought about a car like that or a cow.’

But you can go back in the symbolism and mythology, and you can see these large meanings all over the world. And you become part of it because it takes on another meaning.

We live in a myth. We create realities. I mean, there’s no truth. I mean, I think it was Picasso who said, ‘We all know that art is not truth. That art is a lie.’ It leads us to finding out the truth, the reality of this there. And it makes it possible for us to understand a truth that’s been given to understand. So it’s all chaos.

And so this is a point of reference.  We bring in that chaos to some type of formality. That’s all I try and do. And to me, like I said, I do the work. But after it leaves me it, it no longer exists in this context. I repeat it. I mean, you can see that is repeated and everything. But when I come in, I look at these works, I’m just as amazed as a viewer because I wonder what source did I grab this from to put this in this depiction.

And I know they say, you can’t go back home. But the point is, I bought mine with me. So I don’t have to go back and struggle about what was that? The point is it’s always been with me, and that’s what I try to portray to the viewer. And I think they can relate to that.

When you talk about how you have always tried to create an adequate image. Is that a fear that you have, inadequacy?

Oh yes, oh yes, that’s the driving force also. And I don’t try and resolve that fear.

Every work I work on is work from a standpoint of pride, ignorance. I don’t try to recapture a moment or mood or instant anything like that. I work on, ‘Oh, this is a new work.’ I mean, it’s truly a new work. I don’t care how small or large it is. This is something I haven’t done before. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t even know where I’m going to start. So I might start on the largest aspect of it. Or I take a small object and work and refine it and then it goes out and spreads out. So it’s no pattern in that sense, except that I’m in a place of not knowing, I’m on a journey. Every work that I do, I’m on a journey. I don’t know how it’s going to end. I can be dissatisfied, but I don’t know if that was what it was supposed to be. You see. Because I know that it doesn’t stop there. The viewer completes what is put there in that zone.

Dusk, 1972 (left) and Dusk, 1970 painted by Kermit Oliver. Patricia Lim/KUT

Is it a feeling where you feel like you’re not in control fully of the situation?

Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes. That’s where the inadequacy comes in. But that’s the ignorance – I don’t know how I’m going to approach – I know the drawn image, the diagram that I have. But as far as the painting, I’m wallowing, and inventing and reinventing as I work. With the process that I do, I don’t have a process.

Used to be you’d say ‘That’s a Kermit Oliver.’ No, no, no. Every work is done individually. Whatever it takes for me to complete the image, when I say complete, to finish and say, ‘Okay, I’m done, I’m going to leave it there.’ And that’s it.

Now, you caught yourself there. You said ‘used to be they’d say, there’s a Kermit Oliver.’ How did that change? What changed?

Well, because, when I got to college, we were overwhelmed with the sense of Blackness that I wasn’t aware of. I mean, it was not part of my culture. People think that Blackness is monolithic. But it isn’t. No race is monolithic. But especially – we were put into a stage, you think like this, you do Black work, you do Black themes. So I had to go through that and get that out of the way because it was intruding on me.

We grew up and we had white and Mexican kids growing up in the neighborhood. That’s why integration was no problem when it came because, even though they did it in a graded way, it was always something we were getting into. We would participate in our summer games and things of this nature. So when I came to TSU, there was a sense of Blackness if you want to be accepted. This is ’60, ’61.

So this is a real hot time.

Oh yeah, because it was going into the Civil Rights Movement, and all that, you see? And so my point is that… and the idea of African culture was very prominent. I did not do work that had that persona in it. And the head of the department had just come back from his African trip and he’d gotten notoriety from it. So, I’m conflicted. And so that isolated me from the students in the art department, because I did not paint those type of themes.

So it was a hard seven years to get through, but it happened. That’s where I felt I distilled what I wanted to do. I brought with my culture from home and it was always what was evolving, me and my artwork. And as you can see, you can go back some of these to the ‘70s, and a few that go in the late ‘60s, but the themes are almost the same. Even my exposure to psychology and Jung and Freud and mythology and symbolism and everything – it was always put through the context of my childhood experience and my own experience, and people relate it to whatever they want to relate to.

That portion of it is out of your hands in a lot of ways. Could you talk a little bit about working for the Post Office, and what you enjoyed about that?

Well, again, I was married – had three kids at the time. And I had a responsibility. And again, my art was never a force that defined or identified me. It was never there. And you have to have that to be a renowned artist of any sort, to be a known quantity. You have to go and promote it and everything. I’ve never promoted my work, I’ve never promoted my work.

I’ve always become – I won’t say victim, but subject to people saying, ‘Come on Kermit, let’s do this, or let’s do this.’ And I would never encourage myself to participate. But I was doing it as a compliment to being asked to do it. So my art was always tertiary. It was never first or second, it was probably back further than that. It was never anything that I could rely on for income because I was not that productive in that way.

So finally, I decided, third kid, I can’t depend on art like this. And I worked in a framing shop for 17 years. So I always worked to provide for myself. And then I decided, after the third child, I’m going to go – for 10 years, my brother tried to get me to go work in the post office – I could work in the school system. My philosophies just didn’t, didn’t go well.

Did you try?

I did, as a substitute teacher, yes. And it was just so political and so… children were not considered at all. And so I did not need that context to be draining me in it. And I know several instructors, art instructors, that came through TSU. And they were always unhappy, unfulfilled and everything. And to me it should have been the most fulfilling job, because you were working with them. But when I was first interviewed for the job, the teacher said, ‘Well, we judge our teachers by how many contests the kids win.’ I said, you might have one or two kids, win but you have 30 kids per class, five classes. That’s what, 150 kids? What do you have for them? And so it was things like that, I just was not involved in it, and I didn’t want to dedicate my life to it. Again, art was a process of me illustrating how I felt.

And it was not dependent upon responses, public or private. I felt like doing this, there it is. I’m just fortunate that I had a gallery.

Can you talk me through what your routine would look like?

Well I was I was a mail sorter. Was on a machine that sorted, I would see stacks of letters and postcards of their because they had stamps. And European countries used art on their stamps. And I was seeing works I couldn’t imagine!

And if it was a stamp that was loose. I had it. I would go where they would sweep up on the floor, I would go through there and pick up stamps. I have books of stamps from European countries of paintings and things that I couldn’t imagine ever seeing. My education of art is always through printed image. I used to go to the museum two or three times a day in Houston because I lived about seven blocks away. And I would go to galleries because I would ride my bicycle to my work and I would stop on the way to work and back. But the idea of going to a museum was not something that was prompting me to look at art. I had art books, and I would refer to them. And so when I worked at the Post Office and I had these paintings, I said what in the heck? So it was just all in the magazines – art magazines – that would come through. I mean, it was just an education for me. And that’s the way I approach it.

You have a lot going on at this point in your life. You have three children and you have a full-time job. And did you did you think about not making art?

No, no, no. That was part of my nature. That’s what I did, I mean, even at the Post Office for 36 years, I worked the midnight shift, what they call the graveyard shift. But I mean, and so I had my day hours to do things, but art was not the only thing I did. That was something I did after I got to doing other responsibilities – grocery shopping, kids going to school every day.

And it was something that I felt like I needed to do, but it was not something that was primarily that, I couldn’t set aside. I mean, I’d hold my kid. And he loved to nurse. Instead of a nipple, he’d suck on my nose while I’m painting. And then I might have to stop and sit down. So it was always role that took position after my family life. And that’s what it’s always been. And so it was not that, Oh, I’m going to kill myself, I’m going harm as if I can’t go in here and do this painting. No, no, it was just something that I did.

One of the things that I that I’ve noticed and as I’ve looked through some of your work is there are works of yours that definitely talk to each other… You’re telling a story through panels. I think of one of the pieces that I was looking at this morning or two pieces are Ophelia, where you see the scene and then you see the detail, you know, just that hand in the corner and two separate paintings. When you’re painting something like that, when you’re creating that image, do you know it’s going to be two images in advance?

Yes, oh yes.

Could you talk me through how those come to you, the various ideas?

Again, it’s a conglomerate of my readings and things, and it’s like, it’s like they’re dream contents in a sense of the word.  And the dream contents’ subject comes from your real life, the waking life, and it comes back together in your dreams and lot of times destroying it. You don’t know, why was that image there. But it has its meaning. And my paintings are – really the larger groups of things, when it’s more than one or two things – they are collages. People go and cut out clips and glue them on paper. I paint the cutouts. They are given forms. I have boxes of magazines, newspaper clippings, magazine clippings, anything that, something, an object, I’ll say ‘I’m going to use this later on.’ And so what happened there? Pears?

I go through these and I see something that gives me a theme. Then, I’ve got to find things that are going to be associated with that one thing. So if I can have something that looks like it’s out of context, so why is it like that? It’s because that was where my mind was going, you see. And the observer wonders well why is that? But that wondering brings about a conversation, a dialog.

I had a painting, ‘My Aeolian Heir.’ It was my son dancing, he was about two years old, dancing on the saddle of a carousel horse. And the other son was holding a branch of fruit. And then there was an African-type person with a halo of lemons on his head, and he was blowing a flute. And two dogs, dancing on the hind of the horse. And it had this beautiful white snow-covered mountain in the back, and this pure blue sky. And the lady came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Oliver, I want to apologize, but I see that little dark spot in the white mountain. And I think of that as the sin of the world.’

And I said, why apologize? The work’s meaning to me has grown because that was not – I put that there to relieve the whiteness. But you saw something. This is why I say the observer takes control of the work. What meaning they get out of it and what meaning they can put into it. And I said, well, that was one of the most beautiful paintings I thought I had done. But this lady was only impressed by the dark smudge, that I put in as an afterthought to relieve the area. So I mean, I’m never insulted, or affronted by how people respond to my work.

Do you remember how it felt when she told you that? How did you feel to know that this person had had that interpretation?

I was uplifted. Because that gave her meaning to the painting. It wasn’t the well-drawn or well-painted figures or anything. It was a meaning that she got out of the painting. And what gets me is she will go, and any other artists’ work, if she sees something like that, that will cross her mind that I wondered, did that artist have the thought of that that was the evil in this world. And so she might ask the artist that. So what happens? You carry this the message on. I mean, the conversation goes on and I’m not even participating, but I am participating, you see. So this is what’s rewarding. It was joyous to me. Because my vanity of how well a painting had no meaning had no meaning.

You are, you especially, I mean, the artist in general. But, you in particular are in conversation with, I guess all of art history, frankly.

Yes, very much so.

And you feel that?

Yes. Oh yes. Yeah.

Can you sense it while you’re painting something? That you know this is this is an echo of whomever else you have read or seen?

Yes very much so. I’m part of that river. I’m part of it.

That is a good analogy because it is a continuum.

It’s continuous. I might be a small part. I mean, I don’t put myself in any importance in terms of achievement. But I’m part of the conversation that art creates forever. And when you, as a viewer goes in and interprets things from their experience, they become part of it.

But I look back and I think of a ship, and the avant-garde artists are on the bow of the ship and they’re going, plowing there. But I’m the artist at the back. I’m looking at what trail has been left. I’m moving. But I’m looking at the trail and I’m interpreting what I’ve what has been said. So yes, I’m part of it, that great river.

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