Seeing the face of Christ in an unexpected place

By Carol E. Barnwell

Kermit Oliver spoke about his painting “Resurrection” at Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston, in 2007 and the chapel was standing room only. People strained to hear his low, gentle voice explain every detail in the contemporary altarpiece. But when someone asked about the face of Christ, Oliver’s eyes welled with tears and he turned away, unable to speak for a time. No one breathed, sensing the deepest of torments. Moments later, Oliver explained that the face of Christ was painted after his son, Khristian.

What he did not say was that his son was on death row for the 1998 murder. Khristian’s execution has been set for November 5.

“The idea[s] of birth, death, rebirth or resurrection…these elements I use really reflect … my religious upbringing. Basically I was looking at themes that dealt with the idea of immortality, the transitory [nature] of life, the idea of growth…the butterfly, the cocoon, the fish…all these are images that deal with the advent of a God that sacrifices his godliness to bring about salvation to humanity. And this idea of rebirth, you know, redemption…that especially,” Oliver said in a 2006 interview.

The 9-foot tri-foil altarpiece hangs in the Morrow Chapel at Trinity. It shows a triumphant Christ, his head crowned with lilies, rising from the tomb, while a violent orange and black background seem to explode behind him. Fabric draped around the body floats up as well as down, one piece torn and falling away.

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Oliver explained that the twining shape of the cloth is reminiscent of human DNA, the humanity of Christ, as well as the curtain tearing in the temple at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. The painting is laced with allegory within the freeze at the base of the painting where Christ’s foot is stepping on a serpent, a dove perches near the cock and grapevines climb across the stone carving.

Khristian Oliver was one of four persons convicted in the burglary and homicide of Joe Collins, 64. Oliver, convicted of murder, was sentenced to death. The others received sentences from five to 99 years.

Collins went out to pick up a hamburger for dinner March 17, 1998, and returned to find Oliver, then 20, and 16-year-old Benny Rubalcaba inside his home. Rubalcaba’s 15-year-old brother and Oliver’s girlfriend were outside waiting in a pickup truck. Evidence showed Collins shot Rubalcaba in the leg after which Oliver shot Collins then grabbed the man’s rifle and beat him with it, resulting in fatal skull fractures.

The U. S. Supreme Court denied Oliver’s appeal last April, and the execution will take place on November 5.

Kermit and his wife Katie, also an artist, were married in 1962. He taught art until the couple moved to Waco in 1978 where Oliver took a job with the US Postal Service. He worked the night shift and painted in the mornings. The job provided a salary, pension and benefits -- more security than most artists enjoy -- while it insulated the quiet Oliver from the limelight he has sought to avoid. They have three children.

Oliver’s paintings are widely collected and he has designed more than two dozen scarves for Hermes, a Paris fashion house. Houston art dealer Geri Hooks, who represents Oliver through the Hooks-Epstein Gallery called Oliver one of “the top five of artists in America today.”

The Olivers will show their work, together with Khristian’s, in an Art Center Waco (http://www.artcenterwaco.org/) October 16, 2009 - January 24, 2010 in an exhibit titled “Oliver Retrospective.”

"A lot of church art celebrates the truth that God has come into the world and loves us. --that what has happened is glorious and full of grace. In Resurrection, Kermit Oliver challenges our assumptions about what is to come. He engages our spiritual imaginations. Then, learning that the face is his son's, Khristian, life and death swirl together in the orange cloud," said the Rev. Murray Powell, assitant rector, Trinity, Houston.

With information from the Waco Tribune.

Carol E. Barnwell, communication director of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, is an award winning photographer, writer and producer, who also edits a monthly newspaper for the diocese's 84,000 plus members. She has served on the press teams of four General Conventions and the Lambeth Conference, and has covered numerous international stories.

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