The image that greets a visitor to “Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver” at the Mint Museum Uptown is striking and simple, its peaceful mood befitting the recent holiday season. “Renee as an Angel” is dressed in white, with white wings that lift your spirit, and hers. But as explained by McIver, the artist who is also Renee’s sister, the costume that inspired the oil on canvas work from 2008 was donned on a different holiday.
“Renee loves holidays and she loves Halloween. Each year she wanted to be something different, and so that particular year she wanted to be an angel,” McIver said. “I found her this white dress and I made her these angel wings, and that’s what she wore to the Halloween party.” It was at a day program for those like Renee, with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in Arizona, where the two lived when McIver taught at Arizona State University and took care of her sister.
“One of the great things about Renee is that she has the ability to look young, childlike,” said McIver, “but she also has the ability to look older and wise. There’s a real purity.”
The lives of Renee, the eldest at 53, and McIver, the youngest, who just turned 50, have been intertwined since their mother, a domestic worker, raised the two and middle sister Roni in a housing project in Greensboro. When mother Ethel died in 2004 and McIver, as she had promised, replaced her in the caregiver role, Renee became the center of McIver’s life and work. “I was single and just had cats,” she said.
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Of “Renee as an Angel” McIver said, “It was just about seeing her in this special way, and thinking it was also a gift from my mother, to leave Renee in my care. Although that was not my initial response, I’ve learned so much from her and she’s broadened my life by being a part of it.”
The documentary “Raising Renee,” originally broadcast on HBO last February, told the story. The Mint exhibit, which closes Sunday, does, too, with portraits of Renee, Ethel and Beverly. The small show, just 14 works, tells a big-hearted tale in vibrant colors, heavy brushstrokes and the emotion-filled style that set McIver’s work apart.
Her art – which examines racial, gender and social identities – has won awards and fellowships, including one that has taken McIver to New York City for a year, away from her home in Durham, where she moved in 2007 to teach at historically black North Carolina Central University and to be near family who could help her care for Renee. She never thought she would return to her home state. “I associated Greensboro and North Carolina with being poor, with being in a housing project, something that I never, ever, ever wanted to return to.”
It has been tough, she said, “but it’s been good.”
While the Mint exhibit is in North Carolina, this year McIver just visits. As one of 17 artists chosen from 1,100 for the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation’s Space Program, McIver is making new work in free studio space in Brooklyn, N.Y., overlooking the Manhattan Bridge.
Renee is now living in her own Greensboro apartment in a housing complex for the disabled and elderly. They talk on the phone every day, McIver said. She is reminded of the relationship from fans such as the young woman who took the bus from Washington, D.C., to New York for recent open studio time. The woman, who told McIver she had a niece with special needs, said she had seen the documentary on HBO. It had so touched her, she told McIver, “I had to meet you.”
The Mint show continues to draw interest and some strong reactions, such as a comment after McIver’s presentation that questioned the blackface makeup the subject of the joyous “Dora’s Dance” is wearing.
“Most who voiced their opinions were black,” she said. “They thought it was racist; they thought I was racist.
“I explained it by saying in my slide lecture that I wanted to be a professional clown and that I was originally white face because that was all they allowed us to be in high school. When I discovered that I could be blackface, it was liberating.”
The subject was inspired by a maid McIver met in a Mississippi nursing home when she was conducting oral histories and storing images for her painting.
“All of my portraits are self-portraits,” she has said. “I use the faces of others who reflect my most inner being.” She said, “I mean that when I go to make a portrait of someone other than myself, I try to find a connection to that person.”
In New York, McIver, who paints from the photographs she has always loved to take, has re-connected with choreographer Bill T. Jones, whom she met when he had a film in a festival that featured “Raising Renee” and now wants to paint. “I was taking these photos of him, trying to get him to drop his head and look down … depressed like I was feeling. He wasn’t having it. He was confident and self-assured and staring right into the camera. I’m having to pull myself up to get to that point where I feel like he looks.”
But McIver is mostly enjoying her new home. And she is, as a 2011 self-portrait in the Mint Museum show is named, “Truly Grateful.”
“I have fulfilled my promise to my mother, to provide Renee with the best possible life. Renee is happy and taken care of. I’m grateful that I had that opportunity,” she said. “I’m grateful that I get to live in New York for a year … to have this new experience.”
“We’re all healthy; life is good.”