Beverly McIver: Full Circle, a survey of over 50 paintings by the acclaimed North Carolina artist, is the new exhibition going on at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem. The Greensboro native has won prizes from the American Academy in Rome among others, and her feature-length HBO documentary Raising Renee was nominated for an Emmy.
McIver grew up in Greensboro as one of three daughters. Her sister, Renee is a person with developmental disabilities. Their single mom worked multiple domestic jobs to support them, and when she passed away, McIver began caring for Renee full time — just as her artistic career was taking off.
Her paintings use big, bold, brush strokes and a wide color palette, to create extremely intimate self-portraits and portraits of others. They make powerful statements about life’s many challenges: illness, family, stereotypes, and self-acceptance.
Those intense themes are resonating with SECCA visitors like Tyler Walker, a digital organizer for the Human Rights Campaign in Greensboro.
“The first thing that I thought when I walked into the room is that it’s so compelling and striking — her way of putting emotion into her art by doing a series of different facial expressions of people,” says Walker. “And they’re all beautifully sad. Is that a good way of putting it? They’re beautifully sad.”
Winston-Salem artist Alix Hitchcock says each piece is somewhat surprising. She loves what she calls McIver’s very direct brushstrokes, strong use of paint, and the absence of paint as in her portrait titled Mom Died.
“That was a shocker because, you know her mother’s Black like her, and she left the face totally white which is kind of ghostly and scary,” she says. “And the mouth open. And anyone who’s been around a dead parent, they know about the mouth being left open.”
Shannon Stokes is a dancer. She’s struck by what she describes as the movement within each canvas, and the color patterns — skin tones of greens, orange, red, side-by-side.
“The brush strokes are very intense, so I find myself stepping back to even look at the work,” says Stokes. “I mean, up close it’s just very in your face. But to really get the whole feel of the emotion of the piece, I find myself continuing to step back and look at it and observe.”
SECCA Executive Director William Carpenter says it’s all by design.
“You can’t help but sort of just immediately be lost in the painting because you’re looking at the texture, you’re looking at the strokes, you’re looking at the color, and then you’re looking at the content too, and it all sort of comes together in this amalgam,” says Carpenter.
And he says that content is highly personal — intimacy, identity, connection — self-portraits of a woman who is contemplating her place in the world, and her relationship to those around her. In her early self-portraits, McIver is wearing clown makeup as a kind of mask — dealing with her own shyness, or fear of not belonging. Carpenter points to a more recent series, four large self-portraits hung in a row side by side.
“She’s clearly working through depression,” he says. “She’s taking photos and images of herself lying down, sort of staring off into space, and in some cases all you can really see is maybe three quarters of her head in the side of the frame. And so, the emotion has taken over the entire frame of that picture. She’s really I think exposing a part of herself that is, you know, pretty scary to expose, right, that we’re not always on, that we’re not always alright.”
McIver attended the opening and briefly spoke to the audience of some 100 visitors. She described feeling overwhelmed, and how validation from where she grew up in North Carolina is extremely important to her. She says the reception she’s received reinforces her belief in trusting her gut.
"Because the work comes from a place inside that — you know, they talk to me, paintings," says McIver. "Like, sometimes I say, ‘Okay, I want to paint something happy’ [laughs], and sometimes I can’t paint something happy because my inner voice is telling me, ‘You need to paint this.’ And so, I just follow it. And it always comes out fabulous."
That intuition has led to her work being featured in collections across the country including the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian, extended teaching engagements at major universities including Arizona State and Duke Universities, and she says, a clearer understanding of why her work resonates with viewers.
“You know, it comes from being a human in that,” says McIver. “And I think that’s what the connection is to the people who respond. It’s that even though the characters might be a different color than they are, different size, different gender, the overwhelming arc of the work is about humanity.”
Beverly McIver: Full Circle, tracing the arc of her career and illuminating her personal story over 25 years, will remain on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art through March 26, 2023.