DURHAM — In the spring of 2004, painter Beverly McIver's career was taking off. She had a teaching job at Arizona State University, and she'd just finished one fellowship (at Harvard, no less) and started another in New York City. She had met a couple of filmmakers at Harvard, Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, who were making a documentary about her and her work. Finally, it seemed that her years of struggling to make it as an artist were paying off.
Then her mother died unexpectedly after a brief illness.
That's hard for anyone, but it was also complicated for McIver. Some years earlier, she'd made a promise to her mother: When the time came, McIver would look after her older sister, Renee, who is mentally disabled. Abruptly, the story that the movie was telling became radically different.
"It was a shock to them, and a shock to me," McIver said on a recent morning in her Durham studio. "All of a sudden, that promise I'd made was due - way ahead of schedule."
The resulting film, "Raising Renee," chronicles the difficulties the McIver sisters faced as Beverly moved Renee to Phoenix and tried to balance caring for her while painting, teaching and earning a living. It wasn't easy, but it ended in a positive place for everyone.
"Raising Renee" is drawing plaudits on the festival circuit, including a well-received run at Durham's Full Frame in April. It will air on HBO in December, about the same time that McIver has a show opening at the N.C. Museum of Art.
Meanwhile, Renee is living alone for the first time. Beverly set her up in a special apartment complex in their native Greensboro, designed for adults with special needs. Their other sister, Roni, works nearby and keeps tabs on Renee while Beverly paints and teaches at N.C. Central University in Durham, her alma mater.
"Several people who have seen the film have told me, 'I could not have done what you did,'" McIver said. "Not everybody's cut out for it, and I would not have made that promise to my mother if she were on her deathbed. At that time, the idea was that you had to be in New York to be a successful artist. That was before everybody got a website and a blog and a Twitter and a Flickr. I wanted so bad to be an artist, I made so many sacrifices. I never married, I never had children. It's always been about my art career.
"I don't regret it now," she concluded. "Hindsight is a beautiful thing."
Life has never been easy for McIver, who said her family was "poor as dirt" when she was growing up. The 1979 Greensboro massacre, in which the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed five people, happened right in front of her family's apartment. But McIver and Roni were determined to escape, and both went to college.
Not Renee, however. Developmentally disabled since birth, she has the mental capacity of a third-grader. She also has epilepsy. Many of the medications prescribed to keep that under control had unfortunate side effects.
"Some of them would send her into horrible rages," McIver said. "She'd become really violent and do actual harm to me and Roni. Every time I tried to retaliate, my mother would chastise me: 'She can't help it. That could've been you. You're lucky you weren't born that way.' It was difficult."
McIver came to NCCU as a psychology major because, she said, "I like to talk to people, so maybe I could help them." She didn't even pick up a paintbrush until her junior year, after she took an elective drawing class and did well enough for the teacher to encourage her to pursue art.
A subsequent painting class sealed the deal, and McIver changed majors, even though she was hesitant because art didn't seem like something that would get her out of poverty. But she plunged in full-bore, working during the day and taking classes at night at UNC Greensboro after graduating from NCCU.
Enrolling in graduate school at Penn State University, she began teaching while building up an acclaimed body of work. McIver's basic technique is to start with a snapshot, draw it on a canvass, and apply paint to recreate the picture in an abstract way.
She's always working on a half-dozen paintings at a time, creating them in series. Different themes emerge - depression and, recently, separating from Renee after she moved into her own place. That was a positive development, but it didn't come without a price.
"I start out with a very broad idea, and I discover it as I'm painting," she said. "Like Renee and I separating: What does that mean? What does it look like? I usually have pictures to work from, and intuitively I gravitate toward whichever one speaks the loudest about whatever it is I'm talking about. I have no idea how it will look in the end when I start."
Kim Curry-Evans, public-art coordinator for the City of Raleigh arts commission, first met McIver 15 years ago when they both lived in Arizona. McIver did an exhibit of self-portraits, showing herself in a variety of provocative poses - wearing blackface, eating watermelon - which ruffled some feathers on both sides of the racial divide.
"She's not afraid to go there," said Curry-Evans. "Her personal history is a recurring theme, which she has continued to deal with in her work by painting the visual story of her life. Where she's at now feels like a triumph. She's come full-circle in returning to North Carolina, and she's finally getting the recognition she deserves as a fantastic professional artist."
Thanks in part to "Raising Renee," McIver is on the cusp of her greatest visibility yet. She wasn't clear on what kind of movie Jordan and Ascher had in mind, and it was overtaken by events anyway. The filmmakers were on-hand when McIver's mother went into the hospital, and they filmed everything.
"Steve [Ascher], the camera dude, is great at making himself 'invisible,'" McIver said. "He could be in this room, and you'd forget he was around, he's so nonintrusive. He'd look right at me just expressionless, almost with a Mona Lisa smile. He never let on if he thought I was funny or silly or whatever. Audiences laugh throughout the film. There are parts where they cry, too, but mostly they laugh. Thinking back, I imagine Steve going into the bathroom to let it out and laugh, then come back with the austere face."
Despite her lack of expectations, McIver wasn't terribly happy with the first cut of the film. She felt it portrayed her as less of an artist and more of a hobbyist, an objection she expressed to the filmmakers. HBO's supervisors agreed, and editing shifted the movie's emphasis a bit.
Independence for Renee
When "Raising Renee" plays at festivals, the McIver sisters go along. Renee makes and sells potholders for a living, and at each festival she has completely sold out her stock.
"She currently has more money than she's ever had her entire life," McIver said with a laugh. "My mother never would've let Renee live on her own because she was protective. And they were co-dependent. Renee was scared about living on her own and had to be slowly talked into it. I gave her the option of coming back to me if she didn't like it, but I thought she should try. She did, and she loves it. I just asked her when her lease had to be renewed, and she said, 'I know you miss me, but I think I'm gonna stay here.'"
McIver's painting class from NCCU came to the Full Frame showing of "Raising Renee," and they were impressed. Motivating her charges proved to be a challenge until McIver found the right enticement: a gallery show at the end of the semester, with the students showing and even selling their work.
"It jazzed them in a way that they will not go home," she said. "School's been out for weeks, and they're still coming around to paint. I'm just so happy to have figured out how to reach them in a way that's meaningful to them. It gives me hope. That's what happened to me 25 years ago when that teacher reached me by saying, 'If you work hard, you can be good.' I just have to figure out how to keep the momentum going. That's my summer project."