When the Reverend Joyce McDonald first touched clay, she told me the effect was akin to the opposite of Superman touching Kryptonite.
In 1985, after a long battle with addiction, the artist was diagnosed with HIV. In the decade that followed, she began to attend day programs for those afflicted. One such program had an art therapist. “He brought out a big chunk of clay, I’ll never forget that,” McDonald told me in the middle of a FaceTime tour of her apartment and studio in downtown Brooklyn. “I could see that spark in my artist's mind,” she said, of that life changing moment. “And I could not stop.”
For over two decades, the self-taught multidisciplinary artist, minister and activist has been making spiritually charged figurative objects that display an inspired command of accessible materials. For her part in the Gordon Robichaux booth at this year’s Independent, she will be showing art spanning this time period. It’s a body of work that stems from a therapeutic impulse as much as an artistic one. “I looked like I was happy, having fun, and I feel like I was,” McDonald said, of her early work with clay. “Now, I think, after analyzing my own art, no matter what state I was in, there was still something deep down in me that was still sad.”
McDonald was born in Brooklyn in 1951 to a creative family. Her father was a postman who doubled as a tailor and her mother made jewelry. McDonald’s first piece as a child was a sketch of her dad, which showed enough promise that her father bought her a few art books to study–Picasso, Da Vinci. When she was a teenager, McDonald was in a girl group that performed at the Apollo Theater. Though a long battle with addiction afflicted her for decades, she continued to be creative in that time, even making baby hats that she would sell on the street outside of a New York outpost of the clothing store The Gap. McDonald told me she suspects the famous store even stole some of her designs, which is not hard to believe.
After what the artist estimated were over 100 trips to detox centers, McDonald kicked her drug habit for good in 1994. It was shortly after this that she started working with clay. The artist was engaged enough that after a certain point her teacher offered to give her a hunk of the stuff to take home: 25 pounds worth. “I’m holding it on my shoulder in the middle of the street, happy,” McDonald reminisced, about the haul.
McDonald described her early art as “works of deliverance.” She used to carry some of the pieces she made with her in a shoebox. These formative sculptures were not thematically premeditated; the artist told me that the end product would sometimes shock her. “My art would reveal things to me, and I didn’t understand what they meant,” McDonald said. The work plumbed the depths of the artist’s subconscious, and portrayed everything from McDonald’s mother to a fetus to a black cat to a mermaid. “The deepest darkest secrets of my life all came out in clay,” she said.
In the time since, McDonald has maintained both an art and an activism practice, even founding Keep Your Pearls Girls, an art and HIV awareness group aimed at young women in her community. In 2009, the artist became an ordained minister at the Church of the Open Door in Brooklyn. It was through her work with the organization Visual AIDS that the gallerist Sam Gordon of Gordon Robichaux became familiar with McDonald. In 2016, he was invited by Visual AIDS to curate an art show using the organization's archive of work, all of which were created by HIV-positive artists. Very quickly after being introduced to McDonald’s art and even before their gallery was up and running, Gordon told me that it became clear that she was an artist Gordon Robichaux wanted to work with. “There’s something about it that’s so authentic,” he said, of McDonald’s art. “It’s about her, it’s about her story but then also feels so contemporary–figurative sculpture about these figures in pain or through trauma.”
McDonald told me Gordon and Robichaux acted as the leaders of a “rescue team” that assisted in the preservation and distribution of her art. “I was crying, I said help me,” she said. “They helped me get to another level, which helped me get some of that stuff out.” One major result of this rescue was McDonald’s debut solo exhibition at Gordon Robichaux, which took place in January of 2021. It contained work made over a roughly 20 year period, everything from a kneeling Colin Kaepernick to a self-portrait that depicted the artist in a blissful state following a near-death surgery. For Gordon, McDonald’s art pushes back on the idea that “work that’s [seen as] outsider is not up to the same par” as other strands of contemporary art. “These are really sophisticated objects,” he continued.
To study this sophistication, one simply has to look at the materials McDonald used in a single sculpture. During our interview, the artist showed me a striking clay mantlepiece that she finished the night before. In the piece, sparkly glass is foregrounded by four young figures, all wearing what looks like brightly patterned school uniforms. It was made out of the following: marbellete clay; cardboard postcard; black tote bag; shoestring; crushed mirrored glass; whiteout; black magic marker; brown shoe polish; nail polish. “I didn’t know I was going to make four faces, first of all,” McDonald said, of the piece. “I always wind up seeing faces in all my art.”
Faces are one major through-line in the artist’s work; those seen in McDonald’s Independent presentation, the artist noted, “all have a sense of, a prayerful look, or a peaceful look.” To that end, Family Of Hope, which was made in 2020 during the height of the Covid pandemic, depicts a grouping of faces and bodies so intimate that they seem to be melting into one another. Another more recent work, 2021’s Golden Tears, was the result of a kiln misfire while the artist was working at a ceramics residency sponsored by the brand West Elm. “It reminded me of how life could be so, so beautiful, but something could happen and your life could be shattered, your life could be cracked,” McDonald said. The artist was able to salvage the piece; the sculpture’s visible cracks only serve to amplify its beauty.
Then there is Beaded in Strength, which was made in 1998 and portrays a woman in pearls from the front. “She’s very, very peaceful and endearing and supportive, but on the other side of it, when you turn it around, it’s a woman wrapped in ropes, like she’s in bondage,” McDonald said. The artist told me that the work is about “being bound to whatever you’re dealing with. With myself, being bound in the life that I was in, that dealt with many different things that people deal with today–mental illness, drug addiction, secrets, pain. And it was all wrapped around me.”
Not unlike a good portion of McDonald’s work, the ultimate message of the piece is one of redemption. “When you turn it around,” the artist continued, perhaps talking about Beaded in Strength but also perhaps talking about her own experiences in this world. “On the other side of her life, she got free.”