The resurrection of Jesus has been used in artwork many times over, but only once has Jesus’ face in the resurrection scene been replaced by the face of young man on death row. Such is the case in the resurrection painting by Kermit Oliver.
Kermit Oliver was born on August 14, 1943 in Refugio, Texas. He is the son and grandson of African-American cowboys. Oliver studied art at Texas Southern University from 1960 to 1967 and he was the first African-American to be represented by a major gallery. He is also the only American artist who designed scarves for the famed French House of Hermes. Some of Oliver’s solo exhibitions include: 2005 Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (lifetime retrospective) and
1997 Kermit Oliver: Painting, "Texas Realists: Contemporary Artists Exhibit.
The controversial resurrection painting is found at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Waco, Texas. The painting is 9 feet tall and hangs over the altar of the church. At first glance, the painting may cause some eyebrows to rise because of the nudity, but Oliver says that whenever Jesus is depicted at the cross, he is usually wearing very little clothing and he was not trying to shock people with nudity.
The controversy over the painting, however, is not so much the nudity, but the model that Oliver chose for the painting. The model was Oliver’s oldest son, Khristian, who was on death row for the murder of 64-year old Joe Collins of Nacogdoches.
Khristian was 20 years old when he and three other teenagers burglarized the home of Joe Collins. Collins surprised Khristian and Khristian shot Collins in the face with a handgun. Collins was also beaten on the head with the butt of the gun. Khristian was executed on November 5, 2009. He was 32 years old. The family of Joe Collins was present as well as Khristian’s family, including Kermit Oliver.
Oliver says that the theme of the painting was his son rising from his death. “It represented my idea of his being in the role of being redeemed and resurrected, and that's the point I was trying to deal with," Oliver said. He also said that he never condoned or excused his son’s actions, but he speaks from a parent’s unconditional love.
Oliver believes that since Jesus Christ was a condemned criminal when he died, the painting of his son’s face in the resurrection scene was just as appropriate as anything. There are white lilies over Jesus’ head and traditionally, white lilies are placed on the tomb of those convicted for a crime they didn’t commit. White lilies are also used around Easter time.
Regarding the details of the painting, Oliver explained that the twining shape of the white 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 symbols 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. And in the stone carving, we can make out the twelve disciples.
Initially, the congregation of his church did not approve of the painting. They thought it was too controversial. However, after the execution of Khristian took place, the church held a vigil for the young man and they provided support to Oliver’s family during their time of grief. Now, the church says that Oliver’s painting is not going anywhere.
Oliver’s painting is controversial when first learning about it. But after hearing Oliver’s reasons behind using his son as a model, it actually does make sense and it makes for a thought provoking piece of art.