In early September 2020, Programs Associate, Blake Paskal caught up with figurative sculptor Reverend Joyce McDonald to hear more about her new work honoring victims of police brutality and her personal journey of grieving and healing through artmaking in the face of racial injustice and multiple pandemics. McDonald's work was included in our September web gallery, "Ampler than Loneliness: Documenting Collective Resilience through HIV/AIDS and COVID-19" curated by Visual AIDS Archive Intern and guest curator Journey Streams. Along with McDonald, five other artists were interviewed on their experiences. Click here to watch/read the additional interviews.

Blake Paskal: Hi Joyce! So glad that we're able to speak today about your work and your experiences in quarantine. We're so lucky to have you a part of this exhibition.

Joyce McDonald: It's an honor for me to have been able to be a part of this. I just would like to say I'm 69 and half years old. My name is Reverend Joyce McDonald and I'm a testimonial artist. This quarantine has been like nothing, ever. I thought I knew what it was, going to a quiet place, to get into a quiet mood, but this COVID-19 has proven to be more than I could imagine.

BP: What were some of those things that you couldn't have possibly imagined that shifted for you as you were creating?

JM: Well, I've always been one to do art in stressful situations. I like quiet. I like peace.

I kind of had a preview of how it would be, being quarantined. The last two years, especially in 2018, when I was caring for my mom, I was in the house all the time. So I would dabble in art, you know, with foil, but nothing real, maybe Crayola clay or something to move around.

I have to be honest that this is actually the first time since I contracted HIV in 1985 that I ever said I wish I did not have it. Because of what it means to be immune compromised.

You know, I accept the things I cannot change. Take lemons, make lemonade. So I got it. I started doing the clay. The news was on and it was like this madness and all the people were dying and people testing positive.

So I was reading more into my heart. You know, as things got more intense. I feel like the ship captain and I looked up and days are flying by, and that's when all those sculptures came out.

BP: Over the course of quarantine, I noticed that your work shifted towards representing specific people, folks lost to police brutality, other notable Black civil rights leaders. You created sculptures of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others.

JM: You know, I had no plan when everything happened. I just started Georgie's sculpture by pulling up his picture. And the next thing I knew my hands is doing this thing, it was like out of body, and I began to cry.

I had heard a lot, read a lot about what he went through. A part of me has always been able to, I don't know, see people with a deep level of empathy, as if that officer had his knee on my neck and I could feel...and I started crying. And I was dealing with grief. I was dealing with loss.

This year is like a melting pot of creativity and tears. And so I finished George...and I had shared it with my nephew. When he looked at it he said "What about Breonna?" He said, "Today's her birthday."

And so I went back to the clay, and I did her also. And when I was finished I thought maybe I couldn't see. Everything was so distorted. Hours I had put into these sculptures. I couldn't stop.

I did Sandra Bland. Ahmaud Arbery. I did Eric Garner. I did Trayvon Martin. And I did the young African girl, a part of Black Lives Matter, who got murdered by someone after speaking up...Toyin. And I did Michael Brown.

And with each one their eyes are pointing out. At first, all the eyes were closed and it clearly looked like they were in coffins. And then God spoke to me, he said "Because they have opened everyone's eyes, leave their eyes open." That was the main part of each one, their eyes.

BP: It's so beautiful how you managed to capture, with each portrait, something that feels so unique and specific about each person, and you really capture a part of their humanity that isn't always expressed about these folks by the media.

There are so many artists dealing with this, but your work feels unique. You said yourself that empathy really guides your art making. It comes through so clearly when you look at your sculptures.

JM: There are so many people honoring Black Lives Matter. It keeps this story going, their testimonies going, it keeps the story of their lives going.

When I was making these it took so much out of me. I hadn't taken a shower. I'm here by myself, thank God. But I hadn't taken a shower. I hadn't eaten. And I didn't want to ever go through that again.

BP: These artworks honor the folks that you portray, but then they're also very much a testament to your healing journey, your healing process. Then you're using that to put these art objects out into the world that hopefully can aid in other folks' healing as well.

JM: And when I look at them also, every last one of them is the age of my friends, my nieces, and nephews. And like we know, but for the grace of God, it could be any of our children and grandchildren.

There's so many others that, after I thought about it, I realized there's so many other people that I know of that the same thing happened to. And people would march that day, but then it would just fall off. When I was younger, my neighbor, he died from a chokehold in 1969 across the street in the community.

There's just been so much energy moving through me as I create this work.

BP: There certainly is an energy in each sculpture, subtle gestures that you captured with each person. And you're really capturing their likeness, their humanity. It's really beautiful. And deeply, deeply impactful.

JM: I know that God is the divine artistic part of it. It's like I said, my hands are just taken over by some power and the clay is the scripture.

BM: It feels like you were the person that had to make this work.

JM: If I stare at them too long, I could just go into them. And it's funny, you know, it makes me think of the moment of life and death, the way each one happened...because nobody knows the moment they will be gone. It just reminds how life is so precious.

BM: This work is included in an exhibition called Did I Ever Have a Chance? at Mark Selwyn Gallery in Los Angeles. How does it feel for you, these works going out into the world?

JM: It's beyond anything I could have ever imagined. To be happening under these circumstances, in this movement, in 2020, I know that this is a time like never before. I wouldn't have expected nothing like this to ever happen.

It has never been anything like the last six months. I mean, I think my art is like nothing that I would have ever made before. Everything is to be appreciated. Things change.

BM: There's a lot of artists in the gallery in our September gallery, and some of them are more directly responding to things that are happening in terms of police violence and COVID. Others are maybe less related and more a continuation of themes that they were exploring before. But your work definitely is right of this moment. And I think it's just beautiful to witness, you processing all of this and putting out this beautiful, healing artwork.

JM: There's so much I'm thankful for despite everything. And I find myself praying even more. I believe prayer changes things. Also if you're not careful, you can go into a depression. I think of the Serenity Prayer, to grant serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Through it all, God has the whole world in his hands, and change is coming.

And I would tell anybody that's creative...that has the gift to create, to put it out. Don't let it lay dormant, you know, because God gives you this creativity, and you don't know when your last day is going to be.

BM: Joyce, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I just have so much gratitude for the work that you're sharing with all of us right now. And I'm excited to see where your artistic journey continues and how you continue to respond to everything that's changing in the world. Thank you, Joyce.

JM: Thank you.