Chapel Hill, NC
“Artist Beverly McIver paints portraits that distill the emotions of a moment down to their essence. From the bright joy of the first bite of a summer peach to the bitter pain of hyper-visibility, racism and police brutality — she lifts the emotional veils from her subjects and connects them to the viewer. In doing so, her paintings become portraits of the soul where the secrets of the heart are laid bare to witness. McIver’s life is as colorful as the palate she paints from: She’s been a caretaker, a cat mom, a clown, an empath, an itinerant traveler and a soothsayer. As a painter, she examines the complicated facets of identity that are influenced by social, political and economic forces.” — Colony Little, Culture Shock
Within Beverly McIver's portraiture work — where skin that the average person might describe as brown is rendered as an expressionistic composite of an array of vibrant colors and energetic lines that almost seem capable of animating a static image — her exploration of racial identity and her own upbringing is not simply black and white. In paintings from her 1996 show When I Was White, the artist paints herself as a clown in white face, a reference to the clown club she joined in high school. Growing up as a black kid in Greensboro, North Carolina — who was bussed from her home in the projects to a mostly white school on the other side of town — being part of a club that required members to dress up in white face for performances was strangely liberating for McIver. When she put on a white face and blond wig, no one could tell she was black or otherwise different from the other girls in the club. The series later evolved into paintings of McIver as a clown with her face painted black and a show called Mammy, How I Love You in 2003. Seeing paintings of a black woman in blackface did make some people uncomfortable, but the artist refused to apologize for confronting black stereotypes on her own terms or for paying tribute to her mother Ethel who worked for decades as a housekeeper to support the three daughters she was raising on her own.
“I learned to paint in a traditional European way, but I still wanted to tell my own stories and address political and social justice issues. So I thought, you know what, I’ll still make it about the things I care about, but I’ll make it beautiful and so palatable that people might feel comfortable enough to look deeper.”
When Ethel died in 2004, McIver became legal guardian to her oldest sister Renee who suffers from epilepsy and is mentally disabled with the mindset of a third grader. Raising Renee, a 2011 Emmy-award nominated feature length documentary film from HBO (now available on Amazon Prime), follows the sisters for six years — from McIver’s first New York City solo gallery show in 2003, through her decision to leave a tenured teaching position at Arizona State University so the sisters could move back to North Carolina, to the day Renee moved into her own apartment in a Greensboro housing complex for the disabled and elderly in 2009. Though she does not shy away from sharing the personal and difficult parts of her story — both in the film and through her painting — McIver is fully aware that not everyone who encounters her work will be ready to join her on the journey of exploring the profound ways racism, poverty and struggle have colored her life experiences. It’s one of the reasons she puts just as much energy into the technical aspects of her craft. “I want my paint to look like icing on a cake,” the artist explains. “I try to make it thick and luscious, so that if people get scared away by the content of the painting, they can look at the surface of it and say, 'Oh, it's beautiful.'"
McIver’s latest exhibition, The Light Within, features a series of pandemic portraits that have become a visual time capsule of 2020. On display at Craven Allen Gallery in Durham, NC through April 3, 2021, the paintings are visual manifestations of a year defined by isolation, upheaval, uncertainty, resistance and resilience.
What can you tell us about your upcoming show that starts at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in 2022?
“A traveling retrospective of over 60 works and the art work of 10-12 of my former students from different institutions. Their work will be hanging alongside mine. The exhibition will also include work by artists and teachers who have influenced me: Elizabeth Lentz, Faith Ringgold, Richard Mayhew. I think it speaks to what giving back looks like — three generations of artists who have impacted each other, with a generous sense of nurturing others. It embodies everything that is important to me as a human being. I'm also very excited that the survey will start in Scottsdale and continue on to SECCA in Winston Salem, NC and the Gibbs Museum in Charleston, SC."
What do you remember about the first painting you ever sold?
“When I was in the process of leaving NCCU to go to grad school at Penn State, a dear friend said she wanted to buy one of my paintings. I said I would just give her one, but she insisted on paying. We were in a parking lot with the paintings leaning against the car. She pointed to one and asked how much. I said $25. When she questioned me, I went down to $15. Then she said, ‘No. I’ll give you $100.’ I thought I was rich! To this day she has that painting on her wall.”
Can you point to an especially pivotal moment in your art career?
“I was visiting a cousin when one day out of the blue I get a call from a woman who says: You just won $25,000. I thought she was joking, but then a check came in the mail from Anonymous Was a Woman, this mysterious organization that gives these awards to ten [female] artists each year. But no one really knew who was behind it. A few years ago The New York Times did a big article revealing [photographer and philanthropist] Susan Unterberg as the woman who’d been funding millions of dollars of these grants. I couldn’t believe it; I’d known her for years. She was on the board of YADDO, an artists’ retreat I go to in Upstate New York.”
What advice would you give artists who are just getting started in their careers?
“Something I learned from my teacher Faith Ringgold: You have to educate your family on what it is that you do, and then they’ll understand that you’re working and they won’t assume you’re just off in the clouds again. My mom and I would stretch canvases together, and when I did a project interviewing older black women who had been domestic workers in the South, I invited her to travel with me. Because my mom knew what it felt like to work as a maid for white employers who saw her as a nobody service person, I think having her there made it easier for the women I was interviewing to trust and open up to me. Like her, so many of them had played pivotal roles in the lives of the white children they were helping to raise.”