Studio  January 7, 2021  Amy Funderburk

Revealing "The Light Within": A Conversation with Beverly McIver

Craven Allen Gallery

Beverly McIver, Blinding Light. Oil on canvas. 30 x 30 in. 

Amid the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, artist Beverly McIver listened to her intuition. The lockdown afforded McIver unexpected painting time and the resulting works are ripe with emotion and truth telling. 

McIver grew up in public housing in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Ku Klux Klan shot five people in front of her house in 1979. The artist, who now lives in Durham, NC, initially wanted to be a professional clown, later exploring racial stereotypes through her blackface clown series.

Currently the Professor of the Practice of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University, McIver’s career accomplishments include the Rome Prize in Visual Arts, a yearlong residency at the American Academy. During a conversation with Art & Object, McIver characterized lockdown as “Rome at home”–a time to paint without obligations. During that residency, she first utilized the raking light with which she now evokes incarceration.

Craven Allen Gallery

Beverly McIver, Pink and Black. Oil on canvas. 30 x 30 in.

Amy Funderburk: You describe creating these paintings as: “My voice felt loud and unapologetic. I felt power in speaking my truth…. This is the time to be brave.” How has this period shaped your work? 

Beverly McIver: I needed to really turn this time into a positive. I was like, I'm just gonna paint whatever comes up. So I started with the scarf paintings. …I decided to just wrap [the scarf] around my head. And then, at four o'clock in the afternoon…the light shines through the blinds, [creating] this pattern…. I couldn't see what I was taking photographs of because the scarf is opaque. [I] just started painting those images, not really thinking too much or overanalyzing…. 

Craven Allen Gallery

Beverly McIver, The Light Within II. Oil on canvas. 48 x 36 in.

And then…my intuition was like, “You should order some rope…. And it should be a thick black rope….” In my normal life, because I have so many distractions and jobs and things to do, I wouldn't have heard it, and if I’d have heard it, I would have ignored it. 

AF: At what point did you realize the subconscious symbolism that you were mining up? You express a profound duality of viewer interpretation in your Artist’s Statement. 

BM: I was thinking about my hair, because I thought, “Wow, what if my dreadlocks were long enough that I could just wrap them [around my head]?’” But I didn't make the connection between that and the rope. And then I showed the images to my friend Kim. And she's like, ‘Oh, my God, that looks like a noose!’ And then I saw it…. Later (Kim’s black, by the way), I shared the paintings with a white friend. And they said, ‘Oh, your hair, it’s your dreadlocks, blowing in the wind.’ So then I just continued to ask friends, and it became this sort of split of how black people were interpreting the rope and how white people were interpreting the rope, which was just amazing.

Craven Allen Gallery

Beverly McIver, Lonnie Screaming. Oil on canvas. 36 x 48 in.

AF: How do these paintings tell your story in a way that previous works didn’t?

BM: The other bodies of work that I've created were telling my story at the time. I think that [my residency with the American Academy in Rome was] really when [my] exploration [started] of just being more open and…talking [more] about things that concern me…. [H]aving these ten months to focus on what was important to me, and, I think the political climate had a lot to do with it.… …[B]eing asked to create paintings for [the Enough of Trump campaign by] People for the American Way added into that. …Especially my cousin Lonnie is always a target, and he gets pulled over all the time in Greensboro because he looks like somebody that they're looking for. It's amazing. So you realize...it's just everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you live, how much money you make: you're always black first.

Craven Allen Gallery

Beverly McIver, Black Lives Matter. Oil on canvas. 40 x 30 in.

AF: Do you feel that the arts have the ability to create a discourse to help combat systemic racism in a way that other routes cannot?

BM: Yes, I do. As human beings, we form our opinion or how we think based on what we see and/or experience. So, the fact that we see–whether it's through television, movies, or just real life–that's how we decide how racist we're going to be, consciously or not.… In every state where [billboards and posters of the Enough of Trump paintings were] posted…they voted blue this year. 

AF: So, it's all about telling your story to make a connection with the viewer. 

BM: And then it has the capability of changing their view. That's the power of art.

Craven Allen Gallery

Beverly McIver, Enough. Oil on canvas. 30 x 24 in.

McIver is building an eleven-acre artist’s residency in Chapel Hill, with a focus on people of color and women. Called Renny’s Place for her sister Renee, space in which to work and live will be provided, and McIver will teach residents “the business of being an artist and…how to get to the table.” 

A retrospective showcasing McIver’s work will open in 2022 at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The traveling exhibition will also include work from McIver’s former students who are now practicing artists, as well as artists who have influenced McIver, including Faith Ringgold, Richard Mayhew, and Elizabeth Lentz.

Raising Renee, a 2016 documentary by directors Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher about McIver becoming a caregiver to her oldest sister, is available on Amazon Prime Video.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical world with a more fluid spiritual realm. She works out of the Sternberger Artists Center in Greensboro, NC, and maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt and on Instagram: @AmyFunderburkArtist.

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