Waco painter Kermit Oliver is no stranger.
His deeply allegorical work was included in the inaugural exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. There was a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2005. And curator Dave Hickey selected it for SITE’s fourth Santa Fe. International Biennial in 2001.
Despite this storied history, Oliver has remained peripheral to the Texas art world and is best known as the postman who became the first American to design a scarf for the French fashion house Hermès.
Born into a working ranch family in Refugio, Texas in 1943, Oliver went on to study at Texas Southern University in Houston. Having given up a career in teaching and although exhibiting in galleries in Houston, he accepted a job with the United States Postal Service. In 1984 he and his family moved to Waco. He continued to paint and he continued to work for the postal service.
Now his hometown has mounted a comprehensive study of his work, “Kermit Oliver: New Narratives, New Beginnings” at the Art Center Waco. This is the center’s first exhibition in its new location, and around 50 works spanning Oliver’s career are on display in a series of somewhat crowded spaces.
A room is dedicated to his work with Hermès, for which he has designed 17 different scarves since the 1980s. artistic director of Hermès, towards the work of Oliver.
The resulting scarves are encyclopedic poems for America and often specifically for Texas. A corpulent and regal turkey occupies the center of Texas Fauna and Flora (original version released in 1986), surrounded by a bestiary of Texas creatures — hares and armadillos, owls and egrets — their cameos braided with arabesques of Texas flora.
In an interview for Texas Standard, Oliver spoke of his joy at finding foreign stamps while working in the Postal Service and how they gave him insight into other cultures and their art. These scarves look like enlarged stamps, resplendent in a series of patterns that mythologize a particular deeply American cultural history.
Delight is found in this exhibition in encountering Oliver’s lifelong quest to find meaning through painting and nature. Often the protagonists are animals, an echo of his childhood spent on a ranch. An untitled painting from 1975 is filled with creatures: a crowned cow takes up most of the painting; a cat sits improbably on its back, and next to it a child holds a stick with a songbird on top.
This peaceful kingdom is a domesticated version of the biblical passage from Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…and a little child shall lead them.” These allegorical devices are common in Oliver’s work—both biblical and classical—but ambiguity remains.
The meaning of the individual motifs and their totality is not established. The work is not a simple illustration but mixes the personal with the fantastic, the pastoral with the profane.
“Kermit Oliver: New Narratives, New Beginnings” runs through January 22 at the Art Center Waco, 701 S. Eighth St., Waco. To free. Tuesday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. artcenterwaco.org.