Art & Design
5:45 pm
Sun October 21, 2012

How A Texas Postman Became An Hermès Designer

Originally published on Sun October 21, 2012 8:12 pm

About a year ago, writer Jason Sheeler was working on a story about Hermès scarves — the elaborately decorated silk squares that can cost as much as $400. He traveled to Lyon, in southern France, to visit the factory, and on his first day there he found an even more interesting story: A French woman threw out a big scarf with a turkey on it and asked Sheeler if he knew Kermit. He didn't.

Kermit, as it turns out, is Kermit Oliver. He lives in Waco, Texas, and he's the only American to ever design scarves for Hermès.

"As a matter of fact," the woman told Sheeler, "he is a postman."

A Deeply Humble Artist

Several weeks and many voicemails later, Oliver finally, reluctantly, allowed Sheeler to visit him at home. Sheeler, who wrote about Oliver in the October issue of Texas Monthly, tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, that he was immediately struck by Oliver's artwork.

"Every single bit of wall space is covered with incredibly beautiful, colorful paintings," Sheeler says.

Most of them are portraits of children or farm animals. One huge painting showed a cat sitting on the back of a cow wearing a floral necklace. Another was a portrait of Oliver's father sitting astride a horse.

Oliver is 70 years old. He wears his mustache trim and neat. And though he's one of the most important living African-American painters, he just doesn't understand what the fuss is about. Never mind that he's the only American artist ever to design a scarf for Hermès — which he's done 16 times.

Again, he's also an employee of the U.S. Postal Service.

"He doesn't believe he can make a living as a painter," Sheeler says. "He doesn't even believe that he's that good — those are his words. He just likes to paint.

"He works overnight at the post office, comes home, paints a little bit, takes a nap and then does it all over again. He survives on two to three hours of sleep. Eats a sandwich on his break at the post office. He gets a 30-minute break, and then he goes back to sorting mail."

A Fateful Show

"I think that he's a mystery to everyone. I even sometimes ... wonder if it's a mystery to Kermit, because I think he enjoys people" says Shelby Marcus.

Marcus is the wife of Lawrence Marcus, the founder of the legendary Dallas department store Neiman Marcus, which was instrumental in bringing Oliver to the attention of Hermès.

"He's private, that's the only thing that I can think of," Marcus says. "He has a need for privacy."

Oliver went to art school at Texas Southern University in Houston in the late 1960s. Almost immediately, his work stood out.

"His art is colorful. He works with very, very, very rudimentary supplies," Sheeler says. "He works with acrylic paint that he gets at Michael's [craft stores]. He works on very cheap watercolor paper. He draws, and then he paints. Oftentimes, he uses his family members in his paintings."

A gallery in Houston recognized Oliver's talent and mounted a one-man show of his work in 1970. He became the first black artist represented by a major gallery in Houston. That's how Oliver first met Shelby Marcus — and later, her husband.

"The Hermès company was looking for an artist to do a scarf with a Southwest theme," Sheeler says, "And Lawrence Marcus said, 'You know what? I know the guy. I've got the guy for you.' "

"The thing that intrigued me and made me think of Hermès, for using Kermit's talent was the fact that Kermit tends to design from the outside in," Lawrence Marcus says. "In other words, he designs the frames of the pictures that he's painting. And that's the way Hermès has chosen its path and it just fit in to what Kermit was doing."

By this point, Oliver's work was selling for tens of thousands of dollars. One of his paintings sold for more than $70,000. And all the while, he shows up at the post office in Waco to sort mail.

A Life-Changing Tragedy

Oliver's story took a tragic turn in 1998 when his youngest son, Khristian, was sentenced to death for beating a man to death during a home robbery.

Oliver tried, in vain, to have his son's sentence commuted. Hermès and the Marcus family helped him set up a legal fund. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, but the sentence stood. In November 2009, Oliver and his family watched as Khristian was put to death by lethal injection.

According to people who know Oliver, he was never the same after that.

"He became even more reclusive," Shelby Marcus says. "I believe he had some searching to do within himself about his religion, because he was so crushed."

"There was no common thread within his family that would lead one to believe that Khristian wouldn't have taken the same path as the other children," she says.

"His faith has shifted," Sheeler says. "He'd definitely lost his faith, lost his way in the world, and at the same time having to go to the post office every day. And at the same time having to create these incredibly luxurious 410 squares of silk that are sold in exclusive boutiques worldwide."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

About a year ago, Jason Sheeler was working on a story for The Dallas Morning News. It was about those iconic silk scarves made by the French design house Hermes. And Jason wanted to know why an Hermes scarf costs $400 because, to him and to many people, it's just a small square of silk and 400 bucks seemed really high. So Jason went to Lyon in Southern France where those scarves are made, and he discovered the reason behind it.

JASON SHEELER: They own the land in Brazil where the silkworms are grown and harvested, right? They own the mulberry - the groves of mulberry trees that the silkworms feed on to make, you know, the most perfect silk thread ever. So they own every bit of the process. And so they make their own weave. They have their own looms. They own their own worms, right? Hermes owns every single part of the process. And so that's how it ends up being $410. Then in addition to that, you know, then the silk is brought back to Lyon and - where it's been made.

(SOUNDBITE OF FABRIC BEING CUT)

RAZ: This is the actual sound of one Hermes scarf - a single one - being hand cut and hand sewed around the edges. It takes a few hours just to get this right, and it's perfect - tight and flawless and classic in every way. It's a scarf that could allow Jackie Kennedy or Grace Kelly to go out and maybe snatch a few extra seconds of anonymity and still look fabulous.

Anyway, when Jason Sheeler was at the Hermes factory, he discovered something else unusual about Hermes scarves.

SHEELER: So I got there. And the first day I was in the scarf making factory, this imperious French woman threw out this really great big scarf with a turkey on it, and it had Texas on it. And she said, you are from Texas, no? She said, do you know Kermit? And I was like, who? Or what? What's Kermit? Then she told me that there was a man in Texas who designs scarves for Hermes and he's the only American ever to do it. So I immediately was fascinated. I was - it was like of all people, there's a guy in Texas. And then she said, and as a matter of fact, he's a postman.

RAZ: A postman in Waco, Texas. And his name is Kermit Oliver. Now, that part of the story didn't end up in Jason Sheeler's article, but he couldn't get it out of his head. And so around that time, he called the Texas Monthly, and he said there's a postman in Waco who designs scarves for Hermes. And they told him call him up. So Jason Sheeler did.

SHEELER: Just to get him on the phone took about five or six voice mails, you know, really just saying, hi, it's Jason once again from Texas Monthly. You know, please give me a callback.

RAZ: And after several weeks, Kermit Oliver did. He reluctantly agreed to meet with Jason. He didn't want the attention, but Jason was persistent. And eventually, he headed to Waco to Kermit Oliver's modest home in a rough part of the city.

SHEELER: And every single bit of wall space is covered with his incredibly beautiful, colorful paintings, most involving portraits of his children, of farm animals. There's this great, big, huge painting, there's like, you know, a cat sitting on the back of a cow. The cow has a floral necklace around its neck. These beautiful pastorals, a great big portrait of his father sitting, you know, astride a horse.

And he's sitting there on a chair, on a quilt-covered chair, and he rises to meet me. And I tell him what an honor it is to meet him. I said: You've just got the most amazing story. And he says: Well, why don't you tell me what my story is?

RAZ: Kermit Oliver is almost 70. He wears his mustache trim and neat. And the thing you need to know about him is he doesn't understand what the fuss is about, even though he's one of the most important living African-American painters in America and the only American artist ever to design Hermes scarves. He's actually designed 16 of them.

SHEELER: Kermit would tell you he's a garret artist. He doesn't believe that he can make a living as a painter. He doesn't even believe he's that good. Those are his words. He just likes to paint. He goes - he works overnight in the post office, then he comes home and he paints a little bit, takes a nap and does it all over again. He survives on two or three hours of sleep, eats a sandwich at - on his break at the post office. He gets a 30-minute break, and then he goes back to sorting mail.

RAZ: We tried to contact Kermit Oliver and his family for this story, but they didn't return our calls, and not because they're rude or he's rude, but rather because Kermit's just a deeply humble person.

SHELBY MARCUS: I think that's a mystery to everyone. I even sometimes wonder if it's a mystery to Kermit because I think he enjoys people.

RAZ: That's Shelby Marcus, and we'll hear more from her in a moment. She is the wife of Lawrence Marcus, as in Neiman Marcus, the legendary Dallas-based department store that was instrumental in bringing Kermit Oliver to the attention of Hermes.

MARCUS: He's private. That's the only thing I can think of. He has a need for privacy.

RAZ: Kermit Oliver went to art school at Texas Southern University in Houston in the late 1960s, and almost immediately, his work stood out.

SHEELER: His art is colorful. He works with very, very, very rudimentary supplies. He works with acrylic paint that he gets at Michael's. He works on very cheap watercolor paper. He draws, and then he paints.

RAZ: A gallery in Houston recognized his talent and mounted a one-man show of his work in 1970. And Kermit became the first black artist represented by a major gallery in Houston. And that's how he met Shelby Strope who worked at another gallery. This was before Shelby met and married Lawrence Marcus, an heir to the Neiman Marcus empire.

Now, Neiman Marcus was and still is one of the most important retail outlets for Hermes. And in the mid-1980s, Hermes sent one of its top executives to Texas to meet with Lawrence Marcus.

SHEELER: The Hermes Company was looking for an artist to do a scarf with a Southwest theme. And Lawrence Marcus said: You know what, I know the guy. I've got the guy for you.

RAZ: Lawrence Marcus is now retired. He is in his 90s. And when we reached him at his home in Dallas, he recounted that meeting with Hermes.

LAWRENCE MARCUS: The thing that intrigued me and made me think of Hermes for using Kermit's talent was the fact that Kermit tends to design from the outside in. In other words, he designs the frames of the pictures that he's painting. And that's the way Hermes has chosen its path, and it just fit in to what Kermit was doing.

RAZ: Now, by this point, Kermit Oliver's work was going for tens of thousands of dollars. One of his paintings has sold for more than $70,000. And all the while, even to this day, he shows up at the post office in Waco where he sorts mail. Now, the story of Kermit Oliver might have ended there, but his life took a tragic turn in 1998.

His youngest son, Khristian, got mixed up with a bad crowd of kids in high school. And one night, Khristian went out for a joyride with two friends - brothers - and also with Khristian's girlfriend who was in the car. They were drinking, and they were smoking pot, and they decided to rob a house.

Now, the owner of the house, Joe Collins, wasn't home. But while the boys were inside, Collins returned, and he discovered Khristian and one of the brothers inside his house. And so Joe Collins pulled a gun on them.

SHEELER: He fired. He fired at the brother. Khristian fired back at Joe Collins, and someone later beat Joe Collins to death. And there was a trial. The two brothers testified for the prosecution. Khristian's girlfriend was sent away for life, and Khristian got the death penalty.

RAZ: Kermit Oliver tried to have his son's sentence commuted. Hermes and the Marcus family helped Kermit set up a legal fund. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers, but the sentence stood. And in November 2009, Kermit and his family watched as Khristian Oliver was put to death by lethal injection. According to people who know Kermit, he was never the same after. Here's Shelby Marcus again.

MARCUS: He became even more reclusive. And I believe that he had some searching to do within himself about his religion because he was so crushed that his son had taken the path that was just not - there was no common thread within his family that would lead one to believe that Khristian wouldn't have taken the same path as the other children. But he did not.

SHEELER: To talk about his faith had shifted, definitely lost his faith, lost his way in the world and at the same time, having to go to the post office every day and at the same time, having to create these incredibly luxurious 410 squares of silk that are sold in exclusive boutiques worldwide.

RAZ: Jason Sheeler's story on Kermit Oliver appeared in the October issue of the Texas Monthly. You can see photos of his work at our website, npr.org. Some of his paintings are also on permanent display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Dallas and in Houston. And in early December, the Hooks-Epstein Gallery in Houston will mount a new show of Kermit Oliver's work. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.