Beverly McIver, professor of the practice of art, art history & visual studies, has come Full Circle. That’s the name of the 2022 retrospective of her work that was mounted by Arizona’s Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art and which traveled this year to museums in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina. McIver was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, and raised with her two sisters by her single mom in subsidized housing. Her older sister Renee has mental disabilities that keep her functioning at about a third-grade level. McIver, who received her training as an artist at North Carolina Central University, then at Penn State, was teaching at Arizona State University when her mother died in 2004. McIver fulfilled a promise that she would care for Renee, captured in the documentary film, “Raising Renee.” She moved on to teach at NCCU and then Duke, bringing Renee with her.
Q: In an age of selfies, AI-generated images and endless content, we are barraged by the human face. How do you explain the need for artistic portraits?
I don’t know if I consciously think about it. I mean, I work from photographs. That’s the beginning for me, and then I print those pictures out, and I paint them. And I don’t worry about artificial intelligence either. I think it’s cool that a robot or a machine can do some of the things that humans can do. But I don’t worry about it in the art world, because the one thing that I do in my paintings that I know can’t be duplicated by artificial intelligence is capture people’s emotions. That’s what I’ve been told my paintings do, is give people hugs. Life, if you will. I never think about it replacing me or what I do as an artist, or as an educator.
Q: Your sister Renee has been one of the most important people in your life and one of your central subjects. Can you tell us about her?
In the beginning I was thinking, “Oh God, send me another sister.” But over time, especially after my mother died and Renee came to live with me, I started feeling like I adopted a child. And I love the child that I adopted, and I was going to care for her. I think as a subject, initially, I was attracted to her face: Renee was capable of having the innocent look of a child and then switching to an old lady that’s disoriented, and then other characters in between, so I think that’s what started me painting her. Because I was like, “God, how can one person express all those different individuals just by the way they sit or stand or walk?” I started there, and then I started looking, trying to capture my own grief and happiness and joy with my face.
Q: In “Raising Renee” you describe being in a high school clown club, which meant white face paint, which ultimately upset a child when she saw that your skin beneath was black.
I was aware that I had to be a white clown, because that was said to me. But I didn’t realize it would be so startling and shocking to a white kid that she would start screaming like I was from another planet. But [more important] was actually American Dance Festival. My teacher sent me to see an ADF performance at Duke one summer, and I saw these white people in blackface on stage dancing. And it was like, “Oh my God, I could be Black. I could be a Black clown. Like, I have the power to make myself a Black clown.” And it was that experience that sent me to the Halloween store the next day to purchase black grease paint and an afro wig. And that was the start of me talking about stereotypes of Black people.
Q: What do you teach students that you wish you had been taught?
I teach them the business of being an artist. Which is rewarding, because you can’t just graduate with a degree and not know how to set your art up as a business. I work with graduate students at Duke in documentary studies. They want to know, not only documenting stories, but a business strategies class, so that they can learn “How do I write a business plan? Or how do I apply for a grant?”
Q: I wish someone had taught me that in college.
I know. I hear that over and over again, you know, from students, and, yeah, it’s a shame that we’re just now starting to implement a course like that. Because people are going to graduate in creative fields, and they’re not going to know what to do.
Q: You have lived all over and have returned to the Piedmont, where you’re able to care for your sister, who is now living in a managed-care facility. Full circle indeed, yes?
I feel smarter and wiser, and more able to handle coming full circle. I knew I was going to be true to my voice in the studio, and I knew I had a narrow audience of people who were like, “OK, we love it. We feel what your paintings are exuding.” Thank God I’m an artist – I wouldn’t be able to pay for Renee’s assisted living unless I was an artist and selling my paintings. I just want a good life for me, and I want a good life for Renee, and I want to be able to be passionate about and do what I love, which is painting.