REFUGIO – Some day, Refugio native son Kermit Oliver’s story will be told on French radio waves.
“I still don’t know when the story will be broadcast and where,” said Anne LaMotte, who has exclusively worked as an award-winning journalist for Radio France almost 20 years.
However, for the last year-and-a-half, she has worked freelance. And the story on world-renown artist Oliver is in the making.
“I needed to go to Refugio to see where Kermit was born and grew up,” LaMotte said.
LaMotte traveled to Refugio from Paris, France.
“I spent a little bit more than two days there (in Refugio), interviewing different people who knew him as a child and teenager,” she said.
One of those people was Verna Jones, a childhood friend.
“It went well and was about what he did,” Jones said.
“He was easy-going as a kid – a whole lot different. And he was always drawing things,” she said.
She said she and Oliver were cousins, and played together all the time.
“He was one of my best friends,” she said.
“We played hide and seek as kids. I don’t think kids do that anymore,” she added.
Later they attended Refugio High School.
“I know he didn’t play football. Art was something he always did,” Jones said.
Jones said she has two scarves Oliver designed.
Oliver has designed scarves for the French fashion company Hermes after it discovered him in 1980. He is the only American who works for the company.
According to a feature story by Jason Sheeler in Texas Monthly, Jackie Onassis used an Hermès scarf to hold back her hair, and Princess Grace slung her broken arm in one.
He makes the design, usually a mixture of animals in a surreal setting, and sends it to a studio in Lyon, France, where the artist’s scarves are produced.
“And I have some sketches and a picture he drew one time for a gift,” Jones said.
Jones, who works in Refugio and lives in Sugar Land, said she also bought his art in Las Vegas.
LaMotte said she also visited Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church to find out more about Oliver.
The church is where Oliver’s late mother Katherine taught Bible school for almost 40 years and his late father, K.J. Oliver, was a deacon.
His father, a working cowboy, was featured in the book “Cryin’ for Daylight” by Louise O’Connor.
“...I found out that Kermit had given Mount Pilgrim two massive and marvelous paintings decades ago,” she said.
Another individual LaMotte interviewed on her recent stay in Refugio was Bart Wales, who also has pieces of Oliver’s art.
Wales describes Oliver’s art as modern but unique.
“He is a modern artist using Renaissance methods to tell stories from his life experiences,” Wales said.
Wales explained that Renaissance artists used a formula or method that all artists of the time used.
“It was what gave their art a more fluid look and a scale that was easy to relate to,” he said.
Wales, the Refugio County Museum curator, said he acquired his painting by Oliver when an exhibit of Oliver’s works was presented at the museum in 2009.
The 12 works from a private collection were on display in September through October.
The previous year, Oliver’s silk scarves were in exhibits in Houston and Beeville, but only two pieces were displayed in each exhibit.
After high school, Oliver studied art at Texas Southern and Rice universities.
Wales said his instructor at Texas Southern was John Biggers, and he attended a seminar at Rice conducted by Elaine de Kooning.
Sheeler’s feature in Texas Monthly noted that university life taught black students at the time that they could not be artists, but they could be artists’ teachers.
Oliver tried teaching at Texas Southern for a few years.
Wales said that Oliver, of course, went on to be an artist, and a revered one at that.
Oliver was named 2017 Texas State Visual Artist-2-D and is represented by Hooks-Epstein Galleries in Houston.
“I acquired my scarves online and as gifts,” Wales noted.
LaMotte said she went to Waco to seek out Oliver, where he lives and worked at the Waco Post Office.
“I met Kermit, but he refused an interview. He said OK for a phone interview one day, but not now,” she said.
Oliver will be 76 on Aug. 14. Wales said Oliver for many reasons is reclusive and private.
Tim Delaney is the Refugio editor at the Advance-Guard Press and can be reached at 361-526-2397, or at refugio@mySouTex.com.