Raising Renee: A Sit Down With the Subject of the Powerful New Documentary

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Documentarian Jeanne Jordan and painter Beverly McIver both attended an advanced study in the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. Bev's studio was right next door to Jordan's, and the two became fast friends. Jordan marveled at her neighbor's large-scale paintings, which reminded her of graphic film stills. The two began socializing outside of work, Jeanne inviting the painter to her house to join her and her husband, cinematographer Steven Ascher for dinner.

As the three became closer, the couple learned more about McIver. About her dark childhood, during which she witnessed a Klan shooting just outside of her family home, and about a promise she had made to her mother to look after her mentally challenged sister Renee, when she passed away. The quality of her work, her tumultuous story and her bright personality seemed to be the perfect documentary topic for the Academy Award nominated couple (The American Experience).

They started shooting in 2003 as McIver was on the verge of a major breakthrough. It was the moment in an artist's life when everything is turned upside down at the invite to conduct a solo show in Manhattan. It was at this same moment that McIver's mother passed away, and she was forced to take in a sibling she hardly knew.

The documentary takes us through the emotional and professional struggles of a strong, intelligent woman, an archetype that has been under-appreciated as documentary subject. Airing tonight on HBO2 at 8PM, Raising Renee is poignant, funny and heartbreaking. I spoke with Beverly about the portrayal of her life on film, the want of a good man and her sister Renee.

How has Renee been in the aftermath of the film, now that it's finally coming to fruition?

She's doing great. She's here in New York with me. She loves coming to these premieres and getting lots of attention. She's thriving. I don't know what we're going to do when all of this ends.

What was it like constantly having the camera on you, when so many new things were flooding your life?

One of the things that was very interesting was that Steve Ascher, the cameraman, was pretty fabulous at making himself invisible. That made it very easy for me to be myself. He never laughed at anything I said. I didn't even know I was funny until I saw the film. I had no idea about the facial expressions I make. He made it really easy for me to be me because he wasn't intrusive in anyway. He became invisible to me which is the good and the bad news. What that translates to is I should have put a bra on more often, should have put more lipstick on, dressed better. Instead of just hanging out in my PJs. I spend about eighty percent of the film in my PJs, but that's the real me.

How did the relationship with your sister change when you started living together?

We had to sort of set some ground rules. I told Renee that I was an artist and I needed to go to my studio and do some work and told her she was an artist with the pot holders she knits everyday. So we should both go to our separate studios and work at the same time. Much like her relationship to my mother we became friends. As Renee said, we're just two sisters living together? which I told her was not normal. She had to know! She was great company though and showed me a different world. Renee's world is much louder than mine. She likes the TV and radio. She likes all the lights on. Now that she's not living with me, there's not so much background noise. Quiet is background noise in my house. I rarely burn a light unless I'm in that room. She had the whole house lit up. I like the space around me. A lot of space.

You said plenty of times in the film that you're looking for a man. Any suitors since the film wrapped?

I had a man write me a letter and send it to my job that said he read the New York Times article and he was enchanted by me. I didn't write him back. I had a couple of people come up to me after the screenings and say, "I'm available," which is kind of weird. I need to stop saying that because I don't know what I'm expecting. It's hard. It's really challenging. I'm trying to remain open.

I understand you've had breast reduction surgery and you're working on a series that was inspired by the process and outcome. What will the message of these paintings be?

Part of the message is about being proud of and taking ownership of these objects, that all my life men desire. But I always felt that my breasts were too large or too cumbersome. So now I feel I'm not afraid to say, "Look!" It's interesting, because I've noticed all my clothes, especially my tops, are draped over because I've been hiding my breasts, making them seem smaller. Now that they are, I'm interested in wearing more fitted clothing and showing them off because now they're in proportion with the rest of my body. And now I just love them. And I love all these bras. When I was an F, you could only get them in black, white or beige, but now I can get them in lace, leopard pattern. It's very exciting to have so many choices. I have a purple bra and a red one. They don't make ones for big girl sizes, which is ridiculous! You don't want a pretty bra because you're big?

Where have you shown your work since the doc wrapped??

Currently I have a show up at The North Carolina Museum of Art, which consists of about 30 paintings, most of which are in the film. They'll be up until June 2012. Last year, I got new gallery representation at the Betty Cunningham Gallery. I had my first introductory show in May, which was rally fabulous. Things are going well.

Your life is the subject of much of your paintings, and in this film you are the subject of someone else's work. What was that like for you?

I'm using still for my work. It happened before, but now I'm aware of it in my paintings. I'm interested in multiple panels. I'm interested in telling a story through multiple canvases. That came from an idea that Jeannie said my paintings look like film stills. At the NCMA, I have 9 panels, all with different Dear God stories on top of each one. Same image, but anything from I failed the DMV test, I'll never get my driver's license, damn, damn, damn. To a relative dying. It's also interesting to see myself on film. I've learned a lot from watching this film. I've seen it about 12 times at this point. I really didn't know I was as funny as I am. The audiences who see the film seem to laugh at the same places. I didn't know I had that quality of laughter and how big a role that plays in my life when dealing with things. I wasn't aware of that.

What do you want to display in your artwork? You use these very thick, beautiful, almost violent brushstrokes, and a lot of dark colors. What are you trying to portray?

I hope that the paintings possess what it means to be human. What it means to experience an array of emotions. From joy to sadness and depression and feeling defeated. But being triumphant. I think that's what, for me anyway, that's what my life has been. Having that range of emotion. When I'm depressed it's been what has brought me through that, because I know there are better days ahead. When I'm happy and joyous, I get to sort of enjoy the moment. Stop and embrace it. Because I know it will go away. It'll cycle out. I want to entice people to look at the painting by looking at creamy luscious paint. I want them to think of icing on a cake or ice cream, but know when you indulge too much there are consequences. Some things are that simple. Black and white. But there's a moderation scale, so it's not so black and white. Doesn't mean you can't eat ice cream or go to magnolia. Just in moderation.

Catch Raising Renee on HBO2 tonight at 8pm.

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