Controversial painting adorns Midtown church

HOUSTON Trinity Episcopal Church is steeped in tradition. Built almost 120 years ago, it's on the national register of historic places. While its surroundings now reflect modern life, the sanctuary has changed very little.

"We took kind of an old storage area that was also used as a practice room for the chorus," said Roni McMurtrey, a long-time church member.

McMurtrey was among those who wanted a different kind of a chapel, which now houses weekly jazz services and smaller gatherings. So she approached several well-known artists about creating a space both holy and contemporary.

"It was a way of reflecting what happens in this town. Taking something and taking a space using art and highlighting the sacredness," said McMurtrey.

The altar, the seating and even the lighting are made out of wood and stainless steel. There's a painting done by a local Muslim artist of the women in Christ's life removing his body from the tomb. And these dramatic stained glass windows.

"So many stained glass windows seem to enclose a space and he wanted you to be able to see out into the garden because this congregation doesn't see themselves as enclosed. They see themselves as part of the community," said Kim Clark Renteria, who designed the stained glass.

But the centerpiece, and most controversial, is a nine-foot tall painting over the altar, depicting the resurrection. It was done by Waco artist Kermit Oliver, whose son Khristian was recently executed for the 1998 murder of 64-year-old Joe Collins. The painting shows Christ rising from the cross, a Christ with the face of Khristian Oliver.

"My son, who was on death row, and it was an ideal theme," said Waco artist Kermit Oliver.

Oliver is so soft-spoken, you must strain to hear him, even in Trinity Episcopal's empty chapel. Oliver lets his work do the talking. He was the first African-American artist in Houston to be represented by a major gallery, and the only American artist who designed scarves for the famed French House of Hermes.

It's hard to imagine controversy from this quiet man, but his nine-foot painting of Christ rising from the dead has raised more than a few eyebrows.

"It's a provocative painting and it's an overbearing painting and some people to have wrap their mind around the color and you are challenged by looking at that almost naked body," said Reverend Hannah Atkins of Trinity Episcopal. Oliver is surprised by the outcry.

"I have not seen a painting of Christ on the cross that he was clothed," he said.

The real controversy is not Christ's body, but his face. Oliver's model was his oldest son, Khristian, who was on death row for the murder of 64-year-old Joe Collins of Nacogdoches.

"That's what I used - the theme of my 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.

Oliver often uses his family as models for his paintings. One portrait used his 11-year-old granddaughter, Kitty Sue. He's never condoned or excused his son's actions, but he speaks of a parent's unconditional love. And he knew right away that he wanted Khristian as his resurrection.

"You speak in terms of forgiveness and the redemption. There was no other figure I could use," said Oliver. "It must speak, too, that Christ was a condemned criminal, so I think that's just as appropriate as anything."

"People don't like to think about that," said Reverend Atkins.

When Reverend Atkins came to Trinity nearly two years ago, she heard from some members unhappy about the painting. Until Khristian Oliver was executed this past November.

"We had a vigil here for him and also for the family of Joe Collins, and it felt appropriate to pray for his family and for his soul as he was dying," said Rev. Atkins.

Oliver and his wife Katie are still wracked with grief about their son's death. They visited him every week for 11 years while he was on death row, and they were in the death chamber that night.

"He started quoting the 23rd Psalm and when he got to 'My cup runneth over,' everything was over. And you could see the light leave him," said Oliver. "It made me understand that he understood what it was all about."

As for the painting, church officials say it's not going anywhere.

"It evokes strong reactions, but that is what religious art is supposed to do. It's supposed to help you think about what you believe and what that means in your life," said Rev. Atkins.

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