by Liza Roberts
photographs by Lissa Gotwals
If you didn’t know better, you might mistake Beverly McIver for a regular person. An unusually warm and friendly person, sure, and one with a reflexive generosity. But familiar. Partly, it’s her easy laugh and laid-back banter, which revolves around the well-being of her extended family. It’s also her open, sunny face, the face of someone who gets stopped for directions and asked for advice in dressing rooms. Yes, she’d surely say, that looks great on you.
But while Beverly McIver might seem a Southern everywoman, she is not.
Named one of the “top ten in painting” by Art in America magazine, nationally renowned McIver, 51, is “a most remarkable artist,” says the legendary Irving Sandler, considered by many the dean of American art critics and historians. “She paints very much out of her own life.”
Her own life is a big part of it: McIver’s success represents more than native talent. With grit, ingenuity and hard work, she sprung herself from a Greensboro housing project to the galleries of the nation’s top museums. The daughter of a single mother who worked as a maid and a father she didn’t meet until she was 16, McIver explores issues of race and gender, resilience and vulnerability, duty and love in her autobiographical work, which can be found in the collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and Charlotte’s Mint Museum, among others. It has hung in the National Portrait Gallery and can command five-figure sums.
But when she started painting as an undergraduate at N.C. Central University, it was a lark. Despite encouragement from her professors, McIver was wary of pursing art as a career. “Word on the street was that painters were poor, and since I came from poverty, I wasn’t interested in returning.” So while she studied at night, she toiled as a customer-service representative during the day. Then for years, she taught and painted. It paid off. She received a Guggenheim fellowship, a Radcliffe fellowship, and many awards.
And then, just as her career was soaring, McIver’s mother died, and her family needed her. Badly. Raising Renee, an HBO documentary about McIver’s life that tells the hard, human tale of her struggle between making art and taking full-time care of her mentally disabled sister Renee, was nominated for an Emmy. It’s easy to see why: McIver’s honesty, humor, and flinty strength of character steal the show.
For part of that film, she and Renee lived in Arizona, where McIver taught at Arizona State University. She’s back in Durham now, which she considers home, with a new job as the Esbenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts at Duke University; Renee lives independently.
But before McIver begins at Duke, she’ll complete a three-month artist’s residency in Charlotte, where she will have time for uninterrupted painting. “No cats are coming,” she says, with another of her frequent laughs. “Cats” is partly a metaphor. She means that her posse of gigantic felines won’t be making the trip. But she also means that for three long months, she won’t have a soul to take care of but her own. For McIver, that’ll take some getting used to.
At home here
One recent afternoon, McIver sits in Durham’s Watts Grocery, her favorite restaurant. She is friendly with chef/owner Amy Tornquist, and knows the menu. A few feet down the street is the Craven Allen Gallery, where her work hangs. In a leopard-print dress, her shoulder-length dreadlocks loose, she’s clearly at home as she shares her fries and talks about life.
On this day, she has just returned from a visit to the hospital to see her cousin Sharon, a diabetic who has lost her second leg to the disease. McIver has been visiting Sharon several times a week, painting her, and taking care of her cat, which has joined McIver’s herd. “They all hate each other,” McIver says, laughing. “They’re all hissing at each other. They’re doing that, and I’m painting Sharon in the hospital with no legs.”
Her cousin, she says, doesn’t balk at becoming the latest subject for McIver’s work. McIver says she’s a stoic with a great sense of humor.
“ ‘What are you doing,’ I asked her today,” McIver says, chuckling. “And she said, ‘Just sitting here.’ ” With a comic’s timing, she delivers the line with a deft pause and lilt. But it’s not quite gallows humor. It’s more a kind of honesty, born from the struggles of life, the work of being a perpetual, habitual caretaker of others. “I’m trying to stop it,” she says of the role. “I don’t have anyone who takes care of me. And I don’t know – it’s just exhausting.” McIver has never married – she says she’d love to, one day – and has no children of her own.
In the meantime, she is much in demand. The work she’s making now commands attention and top prices. She has gotten to this point with a solid dose of savvy. The reason she can postpone the start date for her prestigious new post at Duke is because she was able to negotiate a sabbatical up front.
It’s not just her art and her prestige that make her so attractive, it’s also her management skills. In addition to painting, for the last decade she has taught classes in “creative capital,” instructing art students on strategic planning, on how to create a business plan, and how to be an entrepreneur.
McIver credits Richard Mayhew, who is considered one of the most important African-American landscape painters of the 20th century, with teaching her about the importance of the business side of art. “He was the first person who told me: You have to network.” She started forcing her “homebody” self out – to openings, residencies, workshops. “He got me to set goals. It was my first inkling how important it is. And it has made all the difference in the world.”
Visceral, exuberant, sad
Though McIver is known widely for her portraits of Renee and of herself, her current work is varied. Some of it is visceral and difficult, like the paintings of Sharon in the hospital; some buoyant, bursting with energy, like the portraits of friends like the artist Nick Cave; some of McIver herself. And some is sad. A picture of her 88-year-old father – whom she also regularly takes care of – shows the long life he’s lived in the lines on his face and in the shadows of his eyes. Another of Sharon sitting in bed without legs looks startlingly Buddha-like.
Many of McIver’s latest paintings also include small clocks she’s made out of paper and pasted in the corners. The numbers are askew, and in the wrong order. The clocks “are important for some reason,” she says. “I think they’re about marking time…what is time?”
If her brush strokes look spontaneous, the planning that precedes them is not. McIver begins most paintings with a photograph she has taken. She has a pile of them in front of her in her home studio: Sharon from many angles. McIver often projects her chosen image on to a canvas and outlines its edges, sketching out the composition that will come. And then she takes her time – weeks of work, late into the night, for some paintings – to get it right. If a painting is complex, often the face goes in last. On this day, she’s mulling the challenge of creating the right skin color to paint under the filmy white surgical tape on Sharon’s body.
“I think it’s about being vulnerable,” she says, assessing the work. “And being the underdog. And winning.” She looks across the room at another painting of her cousin. “I love that she has this great pride. It’s not the end of her life.”
It’s hard for McIver to do this work. Personal and wrenching. “The paintings are like: ‘Give me more! Give me more!’ I’m thinking: ‘I’m giving you everything!’ ” It’s clear that her empathy is something McIver is trying to wrangle. While it enables her to capture the soul of the people she paints, it asks a lot in return.
It’s not just the people related to her whom she feels compelled to upend her life to help. One of McIver’s most celebrated works – Dora’s Dance, which Charlotte’s Mint Museum bought last year for $30,000 – is ostensibly a self-portrait. It depicts McIver in blackface, dancing. But she painted it to honor a woman she barely knew, whose story haunted her. She was the former maid of the mother of a friend, a woman named Dora whom McIver met in a Mississippi nursing home. “Please take me out of here,” the woman pleaded with McIver. “Call somebody to come and get me.” McIver left the place “so distraught” that she considered taking Dora home herself. She knew she couldn’t do it. Instead, she painted. “If I made these paintings of Dora dancing,” McIver reasoned, it could “free her spirit.” One month later, McIver learned that a relative had, in fact, freed Dora, and taken her home.
While today McIver has her hands full taking care part-time of Renee, her aunt, and her father, the years of taking full-time care of her sister have altered McIver’s parameters – personally and artistically. Renee had long served not only as the work of McIver’s days, but as the subject of her art. When Renee moved out, she also “started moving out of the picture,” McIver says. “I started making more self-portraits and just evaluating: who am I without Renee? What do I want?”