Beverly McIver is an acclaimed contemporary visual artist from Greensboro, N.C. She received the Rome Prize Fellowship in 2017, and is currently on sabbatical from her position as the Ebenshade Professor of the Practice in Studio Arts at Duke University. Her relationship with the North Carolina Arts Council spans decades, and began in 1994 when she received the North Carolina Arts Council’s Artist Fellowship.
Interview by Sandra Davidson
When did you first start painting?
I actually didn’t start painting until my second year at North Carolina Central University [when] I took a painting class as an elective. I had a really great teacher there, Elizabeth, and she believed in me in a really nice way. She told me if I worked hard at painting then I could be good at it. So I started painting, and I’ve been painting ever since.
What about it clicked with you?
I think the biggest thing is having Elizabeth believe in me and say, “You can do this. You have talent. You can make a living as an artist.” That was the first time I had ever heard that because [of] the stereotype [that] artists are poor. I totally didn’t want to be poor because I had come from poverty and wasn’t interested in repeating that.
You received the North Carolina Arts Council Artist Fellowship in 1994. What was going on for you as a painter then?
I was working [as an] adjunct, and I was renting out a little condo in Durham. I had the second bedroom as my studio, and I was constantly painting. I was making portraits of my sister Renee, who is mentally disabled, [that explored] the struggle of having someone with special needs in your life. She is 57 years old, but she has the mindset of a third grader, and she has epilepsy. When I got the grant, it was such an honor and a confirmation for me about my skills as an artist, about my voice as an artist, and [about] how important it was that I was saying something that was fairly personal but universal at the same time.
How quickly did you gravitate to painting about your family and subjects that are very personal to you?
I started making paintings of my sister Renee [when] I started having dreams about how violent Renee was when we were growing up as children, and how she would throw me down the steps or hit me. My mother would always say, “She can’t help it, and you shouldn’t hit her back.” I was out of school at the time, and I was terrified. I was feeling really angry and sad and guilty, and just a real mixed bag of emotions, but my teacher Elizabeth was like, “Just keep painting them. Just keep making them.” So that’s what I did. That’s how it started. I ruined several brushes. Made maybe 15 paintings about what it was like to grow up with Renee and be in Renee’s shadow.
Once I had let that voice come through, the voice that guides me and tells me what to paint next has just gotten stronger and stronger over the years. Now I listen to it, and I don’t feel like I have too much of a say in what comes up. It just comes out.
How else has the North Carolina Arts Council supported your career?
There used to be a residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts where the North Carolina Arts Council would send two artists to Sausalito, California for three months to paint. I was fortunate enough to get that, and it was fantastic. One of my favorite artists is Richard Diebenkorn, and I was able to see and understand that work so much better at a time when I was just learning and experimenting about paint color and overlay by going to Northern California where he mostly painted. There was a project grant that I received from the North Carolina Arts Council. There was a Fellowship Grant that I received. Those programs, those experiences really, really changed my life. I’m just eternally grateful to the North Carolina Arts Council for supporting me as a young artist.
You now teach workshops for the North Carolina Arts Council at the annual Creative Capital gatherings. Will you talk about what that means to you?
One of the great things that the North Carolina Arts Council does every year is invite Creative Capital, an organization out of New York City, to teach North Carolina artists the business of being an artist. I’ve been fortunate to teach that workshop every year. Thank God for Jeff Pettus who understands and really sees the importance of that workshop for North Carolina artists.
Because I am from North Carolina, I feel especially proud that I actually get to come back each year and stand in front of 27 artists from all parts of North Carolina and say, “You can be successful. You can make money at this. This is how you organize your business as an artist so that you can be successful...whatever that means to you.” For some people it means having a lovely studio space, [to] other people it means showing and exhibiting their work beyond North Carolina. We talk to a lot of different artists, not just visual artists, but writers and musicians— the whole gamut. We teach them how to write a business plan, and how to be a professional artist.
How did you sort through and figure that out for yourself...how to be a successful artist?
The work is first. It’s important to do your work and not let naysayers, or people in the community, or your gallery dealer, or whoever, influence what your intuition is telling you [to] be painting. If I painted flowers or something more aesthetically pleasing, I could probably make more money, but it would not make it possible, perhaps, for me to get the Guggenheim Award or the Rome Prize because they want very strong conceptual ideas about things that are happening in the world.
Then [I’d say] to organize yourself in a way. Keep a mailing list of people who are curators and relevant in the field of art, so that they know what you’re doing. I’ve always had to-do lists, but now I prioritize those lists and [the] things that are important, and [I] figure out action plans to move to the next step. What do I need to do now? How do I keep my name out there? What's available grant-wise that I can apply for? Who’s curating? It’s a combination of all those things. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some good savvy business people who have taught me those things, and I love passing it on to younger artists.
How can North Carolina better support artists?
North Carolina has done a really good job of supporting artists over the years, [and] how lovely it would be if North Carolina could support artists more by providing cheaper housing for artists, by creating studio spaces that are affordable. Imagine if we had more gallery spaces that actually showed and sold artist's’ work, and [more] programs like Creative Capital coming to North Carolina to teach artists the business so they can be sustainable. It would just be lovely to have that kind of support.