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Beverly McIver art is life + the other way around

by Mary C. Curtis

 Beverly McIver art is life + the other way around

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Picture by Artist Beverly McIver - photo HBO

February 21, 2013

The image that greets a visitor to Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver at the Mint Museum Uptown is striking and simple, its peaceful mood befitting the recent holiday season. Renee as an Angel is dressed in white, with white wings that lift your spirit, and hers. But as explained by McIver, the artist who is also ReneeTMs sister, the costume that inspired the oil on canvas work from 2008 was donned on a different holiday.

Renee loves holidays and she loves Halloween. Each year she wanted to be something different, and so that particular year she wanted to be an angel, McIver said. I found her this white dress and I made her these angel wings and thatTMs what she wore to the Halloween party. It was at a day program for those like Renee, with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in Arizona, where the two lived when McIver taught at Arizona State University and took care of her sister.

One of the great things about Renee is that she has the ability to look young, childlike, said McIver, but she also has the ability to look older and wise. ThereTMs a real purity.

The lives of Renee, the eldest at 53, and McIver, the youngest, who just turned 50, have been intertwined since their mother, a domestic worker, raised the two and middle sister Roni in a housing project in Greensboro, N.C. But when mother Ethel died in 2004 and McIver, as she had promised, replaced her in the caregiver role, Renee became the center of McIverTMs life and work. I was single and just had cats, she said. Of Renee as an Angel McIver said, It was just about seeing her in this special way, and thinking it was also a gift from my mother, to leave Renee in my care. Although that was not my initial response, ITMve learned so much from her and sheTMs broadened my life by being a part of it.

The documentary Raising Renee, originally broadcast on HBO last February, told the story. A recent Mint exhibit, which closed on Jan. 6, did, too, with portraits of Renee, Ethel and Beverly. The small show, just 14 works, tells a big-hearted tale in vibrant colors, heavy brushstrokes and the emotion-filled style that set McIverTMs work apart.

Her art ” which examines racial, gender and social identities ” has won awards and fellowships, including one that has taken McIver to New York City for a year, away from her home in Durham, where she moved in 2007 to teach at historically black North Carolina Central University and to be near family members who could help her care for Renee. She never thought she would return to her home state. I associated Greensboro and North Carolina with being poor with being in a housing project, something that I never, ever, ever wanted to return to. It has been tough, she said, but itTMs been good.

While the Mint exhibit is in North Carolina, this year McIver just visits. As one of 17 artists chosen from 1,100 for the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art FoundationTMs Space Program, McIver is making new work in free studio space in Brooklyn, N.Y., overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. In a phone conversation from New York, she spoke of everything that has led to this time and gave a preview of whatTMs ahead.

She reflected on a journey from Greensboro that has been filled with twists and turns, from undergraduate studies at North Carolina Central to graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, years as a university instructor to residencies at leading artist communities, including YADDO in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Penland School of Crafts in the mountains of North Carolina.

The detours included an unsuccessful tryout to be a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown (you had to try out as yourself, and I couldnTMt do it well) and a psychology major she put aside when a college art teacher told her, If you just work hard at this you could be good at it. Artist Elizabeth Lentz is that teacher; itTMs only fitting that McIver returned to inspire students at North Carolina Central.

Renee is now living in her own Greensboro apartment in a housing complex for the disabled and elderly. They talk on the phone every day, McIver said. She is reminded of the relationship from fans such as the young woman who took the bus from Washington, D.C. to New York for recent open studio time. The woman, who told McIver she had a niece with special needs, said she had seen the documentary on HBO. It had so touched her, she told McIver, I had to meet you. The artist gave her a potholder Renee had made.

The Mint Museum show continues to draw interest and some strong reactions, such as a comment after McIverTMs presentation that questioned the blackface makeup the subject of the joyous DoraTMs Dance is wearing. Most who voiced their opinions were black, she said. They thought it was racist; they thought I was racist.

I explained it by saying in my slide lecture that I wanted to be a professional clown and that I was originally white face because that was all they allowed us to be in high school. When I discovered that I could be blackface, it was liberating. The subject was inspired by a maid McIver met in a Mississippi nursing home when she was conducting oral histories and storing images for her painting.

All of my portraits are self-portraits, she has said. I use the faces of others who reflect my most inner being. She said, I mean that when I go to make a portrait of someone other than myself, I try to find a connection to that person something I want to possess in my own life. ITMm not talking about material things; ITMm talking about confidence or being someone who is courageous, perhaps, a good soul.

In New York, McIver, who paints from the photographs she has always loved to take, has re-connected with choreographer Bill T. Jones, whom she met when he had a film in a festival that featured Raising Renee and now wants to paint. I was taking these photos of him, trying to get him to drop his head and look down and depressed like I was feeling. He wasnTMt having it. He was confident and self-assured and staring right into the camera. ITMm having to pull myself up to get to that point where I feel like he looks.

But McIver is mostly enjoying her new home. And she is, as a 2011 self-portrait in the Mint Museum show is named, Truly Grateful. I have fulfilled my promise to my mother, to provide Renee with the best possible life. Renee is happy and taken care of. ITMm grateful that I had that opportunity, she said. ITMm grateful that I get to live in New York for a year to have this new experience.

WeTMre all healthy; life is good.

This article first ran at Qcitymetro and is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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Tags: Beverly McIver, HBO, Mary C. Curtis, documentary, Raising Renee

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