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Arts and Entertainment

Reflections of Beverly McIver
The NC artist opens up about her life, her work and being inspired by ice cream
Published Wednesday, December 12, 2012 11:40 am
by Michaela L. Duckett

 If there is one thing you are not likely to find in the home of nationally acclaimed artist Beverly McIver this holiday season, it is a silver Christmas tree. She hates them.

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"Dora's Dance" is one of many self-portraits of Beverly McIver in black face. She called the paintings "liberating."

“They kind of remind me of being poor and a part of the projects,” she told a crowd during a recent lecture at the Mint Museum Uptown.

McIver grew up in a housing project in Greensboro. As a child, she witnessed members of the Ku Klux Klan shoot and kill five people just steps away from her front door. It’s an incident that she is still healing from several years later because she said she has yet to find a place to “put it” emotionally.

McIver is not one to hide her emotions. They are on full display in her paintings, which are commonly driven by themes of race, class, family and disability. Many are self-portraits that display a wide range of emotion from depression to finding peace or praying.

Other works are portraits of her mother who worked as a maid, a profession that McIver spent much of her life viewing as shameful and demeaning. McIver also spent a great portion of her career painting her mentally disabled sister Renee.

The story of McIver’s promise to take care of Renee after her mother’s death is documented in a HBO film by Academy Award nominees Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher titled “Raising Renee,” which premiered a year ago.

McIver now owns a big house like the ones her mother used to clean in Durham, where she is an art professor at N.C. Central University. Her solo exhibition “Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver” is on display at the Mint Museum Uptown until Jan. 6. The Mint offers free admission every Tuesday

7 things about Beverly McIver

1. She has a few regrets about filming.

“One of the things with the filmmakers is that Steve, the guy with the camera, was really able to make himself invisible while he was filming me,” she said. “So he would say things like, ‘Hey, I’m going to start filming, do you want to put on a bra?’ I would say, ‘No, I’m in my house. I ain’t putting on a bra.’ I regret that. I totally regret it. Normally, I don’t wear lipstick… but I regret that I didn’t really fix myself up for the camera.”

2. Watching her documentary makes her cry.

“I usually cry every time I watch my mother’s death,” she said. “And I’ve seen it a bazillion times. It doesn’t take that movie. Sometimes, I can look at paintings of my mother and get [sad]. I don’t think you ever really get over the loss of a parent… I just wish I could share all of this with her.”

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Beverly McIver's solo exhibit "Reflections:Portraits by Beverly McIver" is currently on display at the Mint Museum Uptown until Jan. 6. Free admission every Tuesday.

3. She’s a fan of artist Richard Deibenkorn

What does McIver do when she is not feeling inspired to paint or wants to give up?

“I eat Haagen-Dazs ice cream and I open up my Richard Diebenkorn catalog,” she said. “I look at the images, and I remember clearly why I love art.”

4. She’s not a fan of “The Help.”

“I did not see it in part because it felt like my creative capital project that I did… 10 years earlier,” McIver said. “I read this quote that I thought was perfect for the film ‘The Help.’ It said: ‘It’s a feel-good movie for white people.’ I think that’s exactly what it is. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. I’m not judging that. I’m just saying that’s what it is. I think if my mother were telling that story about some of the people she worked for… It would be a very different story. My mother worked until she died.”

5. She wanted to be a professional clown.

Growing up, McIver was bused to a predominantly white school, where she said she learned that it was better to be a clown than to be poor and black.

“I tried out for clown college, but unfortunately – or fortunately – I was not accepted,” she said. “I was no longer able to hide my blackness [behind white paint], and soon I had to come to terms with what it meant to be black in America. I continued to clown but I changed my costume. I wore an Afro wig, black face paint… I blossomed, eager to explore my blackness and society’s perception of me. I ate watermelon and mo’ watermelon, and I felt good about this. My new black image was slowly coming together and I shed my clown outfit.”

6. She’s had her share of detractors.

Many people, particularly African-Americans, took issue with McIver’s series of paintings showing herself as a clown in black face eating watermelon. “It was really a liberation from the white face and the idea of wanting to be a clown in a predominantly white school where everybody was white faced,” McIver said. “Then, it was like ‘I can be black,’ and celebrate what it means to be black. I can eat watermelon and not feel embarrassed by it. I can stomp out some of those stereotypes for myself and perhaps for others.”

7. She’s a love child born of an affair.

 “I couldn’t have a relationship with my father while my mother was alive,” she said. “I was the product of [an] affair. My mother was so angry with [my father] for not taking her out of a bad marriage that she was like, ‘He’s just going to always disappoint you and let you down.’ So it wasn’t until after she died that I was able to develop more of a relationship with him, and it’s been going pretty good. He’s a good guy.”


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