Painting on a New Canvas

At Home With Beverly McIver
The New York Times
February 8, 2012
By Penelope Green

DURHAM, N.C. - When she left North Carolina 23 years ago, Beverly McIver never imagined returning. Feisty, talented and ambitious, Ms. McIver was more than eager to shake off the warm clinches of her family and the chilly, intractable racism of the South. And in her lush, narrative paintings — for which she has gathered, at midcareer, an impressive array of fellowships, residencies, solo shows and awards — she has never stopped exploring those themes. Portraits of herself in blackface and a clown's wig show her kinship with artists like Cindy Sherman; in her "laundry" paintings, her mother and her mentally disabled older sister, Renee, hang wash on a clothesline, lyrical compositions that recall the work of Millet and other 19th-century realists.

But in 2007, Ms. McIver, now 49, was lured from a tenured position at Arizona State University by North Carolina Central University, the historically black university where she had learned to paint. By then, her mother had died of cancer and left Ms. McIver with the care of Renee, a responsibility she assumed just as her career was taking off.

"Raising Renee," a documentary that will be shown on Feb. 22 on HBO, follows the sisters for six years, from Ms. McIver's first New York City solo gallery show in 2003 to the day Renee, now 52, wakes up in her own apartment, a rather miraculous turn of events.

This happy ending for both sisters could not have been foretold by Beverly, who initially cringed at the thought of making a home back in North Carolina. In the film, she says drily, "I'm not here an hour before someone reminds me that I'm black, reminds me I'm in the South and a second-class citizen."

As for caring for her sister, she protests, "I can hardly take care of my cats."

The movie takes its tone from Ms. McIver, who is a wry, frank narrator with a comedian's timing. She and Jeanne Jordan, who made the film with her husband, Steven Ascher, met in 2002 at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, to which they had been awarded fellowships. Ms. Jordan was intrigued by Ms. McIver's paintings, which she found cinematic, "like movie stills," she said, and by her complicated personal history.

Ms. McIver grew up in Greensboro, N.C., a city with a grim racial past. Her mother, Ethel, was a maid, a devout Baptist and a single mother, raising three daughters (Beverly, Renee and Roni, the middle sister) in Morningside Homes, a housing project that has been torn down. Renee, who was born mentally disabled and with epilepsy, was a violent child, particularly during adolescence, when she once threw Beverly down the stairs.

When Beverly turned 16, her mother dropped this bomb: "I have something to tell you," she said. "Your father is at the door."

"It was never fully explained," Ms. McIver said. "But it appears that while my mother was in this bad marriage, she and my father, who was a cab driver, had an affair."

Ms. McIver will protest time and again that she is a lousy caretaker, but the film reveals otherwise. Despite the complexities of her relationships, she takes them on with gusto and humor. Her biological father, who maintained only the most tenuous connection with her when she was young, is one of many people she now keeps a watchful, warm eye on. A few years ago, as a way of explaining what she did for a living, she made a portrait for him. When he learned that people pay tens of thousands of dollars for her work, he put it in the closet.

"He thinks it's safer there," Ms. McIver said, shaking her head.

When Renee first moved in with her, Ms. McIver was still living in Arizona. Now a gentle adult with the interests of a very young third grader, Renee embraced her new life. She loved the way her sister outfitted her room to her taste, in pink and purple everything. She loved shopping for a new wardrobe, shedding "the church lady clothes," as Ms. McIver put it, for bright T-shirts and pants.

But Ms. McIver, a successful, single artist and professor, was overwhelmed by her charge. "Feeling responsible for Renee would consume me," she said. "What would she have for dinner, and what would she have for lunch and were her clothes ready? My idea of dinner, until that point, was maybe hummus and some pita bread."

Still, she realized there was an opportunity for Renee to gain her independence. "I planted the seed of her someday living alone," Ms. McIver said. "I told her, 'If something ever happens to me, you'll have your own place.' Renee is aware enough that she is vulnerable, and doesn't have a say in where she lives and who she lives with. I wanted to give her that peace of mind."

Ms. McIver's friends and Ms. Jordan had another insight. "They said that Renee is there to teach me what it feels like to be adored, so I can find a man who adores me," Ms. McIver said. "Jeanne said it's for me to get used to saying, 'I love you, too!' "

Once the filming was completed, Ms. Jordan and her husband waited a year before releasing the movie. They knew it would be a cheat if their happy ending unraveled — if Renee, "all grown up," as she puts it, in her new, bright apartment in Greensboro, had to move back in with Ms. McIver, who is thrilled to be living alone in her new house, in Durham.

But the ending did not unravel. And on her birthday last December, Ms. McIver shed another weight and had breast-reduction surgery, something she had been dreaming of for years. On a recent afternoon, standing in her downstairs bedroom, she demonstrated the slope-shouldered, cross-armed pose she had hidden behind since adolescence.

"I couldn't do it with Renee," she said of the surgery. "You need too much care. But now I can focus on me. Look at my new bra, isn't it beautiful? It has jewelry on it!" Ms. McIver dangled a bright blue lace number with fetching bedazzlements.

The week before, Ms. Jordan and Ms. McIver had given a fund-raising speech for the Radcliffe Fellowship at the Harvard Club in New York. "Because we are the poster children of what can happen there," Ms. McIver said.

Ms. Jordan recalled thinking, "I'll eat my hat if Beverly doesn't bring up the surgery."

"Sure enough," she continued, "I'm looking out at all these wealthy donors, and someone says to Beverly, 'What are you doing now?' She looked at me, and then says, 'I know I shouldn't tell you this, but several weeks ago I had breast-reduction surgery, and I'm fascinated by the artistry of it.' "

Stunned silence.

In fact, Ms. McIver's new paintings "are all about my new breasts," she told a reporter later.

"They are about coming out."

POST-SURGERY, Ms. McIver has been sleeping downstairs in her new house, which has three bedrooms and more than 3,000 square feet. "Sometimes I sleep in different beds, just because I can," she said. "I am so grateful to be here."

She showed off the wide, open spaces: the glassy, double-height living room, the huge kitchen, the studio in the basement. It's the archetype of a suburban family house, which irritates some friends "who think I have no business living alone in such a big house," she said.

Then again, Ms. McIver is lucky in real estate. This clapboard contemporary, built in the mid-1990s, was on the market in 2007 for $579,000; she bought it for $475,000, the exact amount a bank had approved for her. "Just offer them $475,000," she told her broker. "You never know."

But after she and Renee moved to Durham, it was another two years before Renee had her own place. "I was at the end of my rope," Ms. McIver said. "It was time."

Ms. McIver, who paints at night, tried to teach Renee not to interrupt her when she was working at home. Renee, who is extremely social, struggled with that. Ms. McIver also worried when Renee was home by herself. When she had been living with her mother, Renee had opened the door to a man who beat and raped her. Ms. McIver urged her sister to ignore the doorbell. "Just let it ring," she told her.

Finally, in 2009, a disabled cousin moved into a small housing complex for the disabled and elderly around the corner from the Greensboro school where their sister, Roni Bryant, is the assistant principal. Ms. McIver, ever tenacious, found Renee an apartment there and decorated it in Renee's favorite colors. Roni's husband, Hobson, now does Renee's grocery shopping and takes her to church. And every day, a bus picks her up and takes her to a program that teaches her life skills, like how to pay bills and cook. Such an intricate system of support for someone like Renee is rare and precious.

The other day, Renee wore an Obama T-shirt and bright purple pants. There were pink linens on her bed and pink throw pillows. Even the DVD player and the remote were pink — "Hello Kitty," she confided.

She said she was happy to be back in Greensboro. Speaking slowly and carefully, she ticked off the best parts.

"Starting over with my family again," Renee said. "Getting and meeting more new friends. How to be responsible with myself."

The only downside, she said, is the stove, which is not her favorite appliance.

"Isn't she great?" Ms. McIver said, beaming. Then she got back in her car and drove home. 

Search Year: