Black Artists

Painter Beverly McIver’s art is not safe

The self-described ‘poor girl from the projects’ gets her first career retrospective with works featuring blackface and watermelon

“I think it’s a good moment for African American artists,” painter Beverly McIver told me recently as we dined at an upscale Italian restaurant near her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Obama presidency and the cultural engagement that followed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement pushed anti-racist tomes onto bestseller lists and shot the prices of works by Black painters such as Obama portraitists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald into the stratosphere. But despite an award-laden career and a prestigious professorship at Duke University, McIver said her work has yet to receive this wider cultural embrace. “Now, we’re in a phase where the world is like, ‘Black people paint, too,’ ” she said. “They’re seeing images of Black people at the beach or doing other things white people do. It’s a safe transition.”

McIver’s paintings aren’t safe. She often paints herself in blackface. She plays with other racial tropes, including watermelons and the role of Black domestic workers in white households. About 50 of her works will be on display beginning Saturday at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art — McIver’s first career retrospective. Curated by Scottsdale Public Art director Kim Boganey, the retrospective is titled Beverly McIver: Full Circle, a nod to the fact that McIver had shown her early work at the same museum in 1998. “That show got so much hell,” McIver said. “I had a lot of blackface portraits, and people said I was perpetuating a stereotype.”

Anticipating similar blowback from visitors to her new show, McIver said she’s spoken with Boganey, who is also Black, about “how to guide people through the exhibition so they don’t get mad.” The best way to do it, McIver believes, is to stress the personal rather than political nature of her work. “With my paintings, I just tell my story,” she said. “I’m a poor girl from the projects, and I wanted to escape that.”

Clown Portrait.

Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, New York

Long before she considered becoming an artist, McIver wanted to be a professional clown. She felt out of place growing up in the Morningside Homes housing project in Greensboro, North Carolina, and straddling the textile town’s racial divides. McIver was the youngest of three girls — Renee, middle sister Roni and herself — raised by their single mother, who worked at a mill and as a maid for a white family. “It was very hard for my mom,” said Roni McIver Bryant, now an assistant principal in Greensboro. “I remember our laundry piling up, and we’d have to wait to take the clothes to the laundromat across the street because we didn’t have enough quarters for drying.”

Renee attended a school for mentally disabled students. McIver and sister Roni were bused to a white high school. To fit in, they joined the school’s clown club. “It was a whole lot of fun,” Bryant said. “You got to be someone else.” Joining the club was her “first act of liberation from the projects, poverty and Blackness,” McIver said. Their faces painted white, the sisters and their white clubmates performed at nursing homes, birthday parties and parades.

Much later, McIver returned to this passion in her paintings, adding to the rich tradition of clown portraiture in art history. (See McIver’s 1995 Whiteface Clown #2, for example.) And for McIver, blackface was the logical next step. “[When] I put on blackface, it was kind of a liberation,” she told The Baltimore Sun in 2003. “I had been hiding under this white face because I didn’t know I could be a Black clown.”

Of course, the clowning only provided an illusory escape from the realities of her hometown. On Nov. 3, 1979, when McIver was 17, the events that became known as the Greensboro Massacre unfolded outside the Morningside Homes. With the tacit support of Greensboro police, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party attacked participants of a march organized by the Communist Workers’ Party (CWP), which had been agitating for the rights of the city’s largely Black textile workers. Four CWP members and one sympathizer were killed. McIver didn’t witness the violence — she was across town working at McDonald’s — but her mother did. (In a state murder trial and a subsequent federal civil rights trial, all of the KKK and American Nazi Party defendants were found not guilty.)

McIver attended North Carolina Central University in nearby Durham, North Carolina. “It was important for me to choose a historically Black university because I had this uneven belief in white life and Black life with Black life being negative,” she told Boganey in an interview that appears in the exhibit catalog. “I wanted to go someplace where I could see positive perceptions of educated African Americans, who were not much different except for skin color, from the middle-class white people I knew in high school.”

She was considering majoring in psychology but switched to art after taking a painting course with Elizabeth Lentz, a white NCCU professor who was her first mentor. Still, it was only after she was rejected after a tryout for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that she decided to continue her art education. “I didn’t make the cut,” McIver said. “Part of the tryouts was you had to go as who you were and couldn’t have an outfit or paint. And there weren’t a lot of Black clowns in the circus.”

Penn State accepted McIver into a master’s program in fine arts, where the department, which included the Afro Native American landscape painter Richard Mayhew, saw promise in her still-life paintings. But during her second year, she began painting portraits of Black people and recalled that several professors (not Mayhew, who retired shortly after McIver arrived) discouraged the turn, questioning its commercial potential. And then her thesis committee, composed of three white men, told McIver she had failed her oral exam and thesis exhibition, meaning that she’d have to stay at Penn State another year.

Black Girl Beauty.

Collection of Matthew Polk and Amy Gould, Maryland

“There was no sign in my grades or other evaluations along the way that I wasn’t going to get my degree,” McIver said. She was despondent and began taking anti-depressants. The following fall, when Faith Ringgold, an established Harlem, New York-born painter and mixed-media sculptor, gave a lecture on campus, McIver approached her and told her about her troubles. After Ringgold saw McIver’s paintings, she asked her to be her assistant at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. McIver bypassed her thesis committee and asked the dean for approval, which was granted. That spring, she returned to Penn State, and while the committee passed her, McIver said, they told her not to expect a teaching job or ask for letters of recommendation.

Fortunately, she was already teaching at NCCU. The money as an adjunct was paltry — $12,500 to teach five courses — but it gave her time and the minimal resources to paint. She lived in Durham in a close-knit community of striving artists. “Most of them got real jobs after a couple of years, but I wasn’t going to give up,” McIver said. In 1996, she was offered a faculty position at Arizona State University. It was a lifeline for a struggling artist.

McIver was a natural teacher. “I enjoy teaching,” she told me. “I think it’s because I’m a living example of what I love to teach, which is painting, professional development and how to support yourself financially. I bring firsthand knowledge into the classroom.”

Damian Stamer, who recently had a solo show at the SOCO Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled taking McIver’s undergraduate drawing class at ASU in 2004. “It was different than any class I had taken,” he said. “The first assignment was to draw a still life. I spent all this time doing it, and then Beverly told us to trade with a classmate and keep working. That pulled up different emotions. I had someone else’s drawing in a different style.”

A decade later, McIver visited Stamer at his studio in Hillsborough, North Carolina, not far from Chapel Hill. “I pulled out that drawing, and you could see its link to what I was painting at the moment,” he said. “I hadn’t thought about that project in years. But great teachers have a way of planting seeds.”

McIver’s bond with former students is on display in the Scottsdale retrospective, which includes work not only by mentors Lentz, Mayhew and Ringgold, but also several former students, including Stamer. “It’s really unheard of,” Stamer said. “If you have a retrospective, you typically want all the wall space for yourself. People don’t usually share.”

On a crisp December afternoon, I visited McIver in the rural outskirts of Chapel Hill, where she recently completed a home and studio on 11 acres of forested land. I had my two young boys in tow — we often go to an outdoor teahouse and playground near McIver’s home — and McIver soon put us to work in her studio unpacking a crate of paintings she had purchased from an Arizona auction house. One of them, an enormous and ribald funeral scene, featured a display of seminude sadomasochism, but my boys were too busy playing with bubble wrap to notice.

Ethel McIver died in 2003, and McIver had promised to help take care of Renee, who joined her in Arizona. (This time is chronicled in the 2011 HBO documentary, Raising Renee.) But it wasn’t easy, so when her alma mater awarded McIver an honorary degree in 2007 and offered her an endowed professorship, she accepted. “I thought I would retire at Central, and I loved teaching there,” McIver said. But seven years later, the school pulled her research funding — $25,000 annually that she used for her painting — and McIver searched out other offers, ultimately accepting her current position at Duke.

Meanwhile, her painting career continued to advance, with more than 30 solo exhibitions in galleries across the country. Her paintings are displayed at more than a dozen museums, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

In 2003, Penn State reached out to give her its distinguished alumni award, but given her fraught experiences at the school, she was reluctant to accept. Ringgold urged her to attend the ceremony. “She told me that if I didn’t go, the school would just think I was a stupid Black girl who refused an award,” McIver said. “My mother, who hated confrontation, begged me to just say thank you for the award and sit my ass down. But when they called me up to the stage, I said: ‘Thank you for this award. Years ago, I experienced racism and sexism on this campus. It was a horrible time in my life, and I hope no one else experiences this. And this award helps heal that, but don’t call me for any money!’ ”

B. Stephen Carpenter II, the current dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State, said he couldn’t comment specifically on McIver’s experience because the people involved are no longer there. “However, I do wish to emphasize that Beverly McIver is an important and distinguished alumna for our college. We embrace her proudly,” he said in an email. In addition to the 2003 award, she was recognized in 2010 as an Alumni Fellow.

“The college is working to nurture and support a diverse, inclusive, and welcoming community for all our students, faculty, and staff,” Carpenter said. “Doing so is among my highest priorities as dean, and for the leadership of the entire university.”

In December 2021, McIver was beginning work on a portrait of Norman Lear, commissioned by the 99-year-old creator of influential television shows such as All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons. The only other commissioned work I had seen by McIver was a portrait of retired North Carolina Museum of Art director Larry Wheeler, which is displayed in his foyer. The painting depicts the gay, white Wheeler in a navy suit, red stilettos and blackface. “At first I said no to Larry,” McIver said. “I told him that people were going to hate you and hate me.” But she relented and the portrait of Wheeler, whom she knew as a longtime champion of Black artists, “conveys, despite the subject’s public corporate exterior, his aspirational African American soul and defiant gay identity,” according to Duke art historian Richard J. Powell.

That weekend, McIver was hosting her friend, Oakland, California, photographer and painter Victoria Hamlin. In the late 1990s, Hamlin had shot the photos that formed the basis of McIver’s series, Loving in Black and White, which featured McIver in blackface in intimate, often sexualized interplay with a white man. “Like the other paintings from this period that feature McIver’s blackface character, these scenes of dancing, lovemaking and sharing watermelon are remarkable for their utter mundaneness that, were if not for the housedress-wearing, Afro-wigged, blackfaced, female protagonist would hardly elicit any concerns,” writes Powell in his essay for Beverly McIver: Full Circle. Still, when the series was exhibited in 1999 at Arizona’s Chandler Center for the Arts’ Vision Gallery, complaints prompted the staff to remove the paintings in a matter of days.

Life Is Sweet.

Collection of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Hamlin was there to photograph McIver in a new bathtub that she had bought, on sale, for $4,500. McIver has expensive and impetuous tastes — she drives a Porsche — and she didn’t need a new bathtub but was taken with its recliner-chair shape. It now sits on her back porch, unattached to any plumbing. “I bought some fishnets that we’ll drape over me in the tub, and we’ll see what happens,” McIver said.

There was another guest at the house — McIver’s nonagenarian father, Cardrew Davis, who was resting upstairs. (Renee now has her own apartment.) Renee and Roni were the children of Ethel’s husband, who abandoned the family. Ethel had an affair with Davis, a Greensboro taxi driver, and Beverly was born. “I found out when I was 16, when my mother told me one day that my father was at the door,” McIver said. Recently, Davis had fallen and injured himself, and he was recuperating at his daughter’s home. (Not long after, he died. Durham’s Craven Allen Gallery, which represents McIver in North Carolina, is currently exhibiting a selection of McIver’s paintings of her father in commemoration.)

The Scottsdale exhibition runs through September, and in December it will move to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and a few months later to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s the sort of national exposure that can lift an artist’s commercial potential, and for as much as McIver enjoys teaching, she hopes to paint full time. “At the moment, I can’t live the way I want to live off my artwork alone,” she said.

Currently, her paintings typically sell for about $50,000. “The single biggest mistake I made in my collecting life was not buying one of her early paintings where she was holding a watermelon,” said John Craven Bloedorn, co-owner of the Craven Allen Gallery. “I could have bought it for $1,000 at the time. But I was afraid of it. I’m a white guy living in a Southern town, and it made me nervous.”

McIver is planning to start an artist-in-residence program, called Renee’s Place, for artists of color in a yet-to-be-built space on her property. Several years ago, when she was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, McIver met the architect couple Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, who are designing the Obama Presidential Library. They bought one of McIver’s paintings, and when she later told Tsien about Renee’s Place, the architect said she and her husband would design it. “Now, I really have to follow through and get going,” McIver said.

At our dinner, McIver recounted a recent reunion with an old friend, part of McIver’s struggling-artist community in Durham, who had gone on to a more conventional career. “I invited him to my house, and he asked me, ‘When is enough enough?’ ” McIver said. The friend challenged McIver, “You have a big house, a big-ass chandelier, two cars [a truck as well as the Porsche]. When does this end?”

And McIver replied, “No, it’s not enough. Once I get the legacy of Renee’s Place built and am able to give back to poor-ass people of color, then it’ll be enough.”

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, and The Atlantic. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.