Zaire McPhearson MFA EDA ’20: A Fall From Grace
Zaire McPhearson interviewed her grandmother and great aunts about a traumatic experience that challenged their faith and tells their story through sculpture and photography. With spring thesis presentations postponed, Duke Arts honors the MFA EDA Class of 2020 with interviews that dig into the projects and their makers.
Zaire McPhearson considers her work “a love letter to black womanhood.” Her photography and mixed-media sculptures explore faith, femininity, and power, and she often finds the characters and stories for her work in her own family.
McPhearson was born and raised in Charlotte, NC, in a family full of artists. Her father draws, plays the piano and other instruments, and is a skilled carpenter. Her mother’s family are gifted musicians and singers. (“I think that gene missed me!” says McPhearson.) For her, “drawing was a way for me to be myself.” McPhearson, her brother and sister, and her god sister all attended arts magnet schools in Charlotte. She majored in art and design at her high school, Northwest School of the Arts. By the time she graduated, McPhearson had art prizes under her belt and had her clothing designs featured in Charlotte Fashion Week.
Her success as a young artist earned her a full scholarship at South Carolina State University, a small HBCU in Orangeburg, SC. McPhearson loved her time there, she pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, she became vice president of the Campus Activity Board, and she even joined health profession societies. She seriously considered becoming a biology major, she researched careers in anatomical illustration, but art pulled her back.
“My professor Susan Smith, who recently passed away, was the first person to really teach me about the art of photography,” says McPhearson. “That’s where I got my love of it from.” McPhearson started to work on a photo series titled Mary Did You Know?. These black and white portraits depict Mary as she journeys from being called by God through giving birth. Mary is Black, and played by McPhearson’s cousin and young sister in dramatic staging that evokes Renaissance painting and sculpture. “I create work centered around the Black body; I put Black bodies in typically white spaces,” explains McPhearson. “By using a child, I wanted to show the innocence of Mary’s love.”
McPhearson wanted to use graduate school as a way to focus her arts education around one medium, but when she began researching Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, she thought: “Can my work be considered documentary?”
The MFA EDA program helped McPhearson name and grow the themes within Mary Did You Know?. “My work is documentary because I take historical texts and imagery and implement my self—what I stand for, my religion—into my artwork.”
A Fall From Grace
In her thesis exhibition, A Fall From Grace, McPhearson uses sculpture, stained glass, and photography to unpack the layers of a family history of unbroken faith.
“A Fall From Grace is a multi-layered story of black women who fell victim to a cult during the early 1970’s through the early 2000’s. The group known as “The Prayer Band” would control their lives for over two decades. These women persevered and regained a complete walk with God.”—Artist Statement
McPhearson’s grandmother and four of her great aunts were members of the First Church of God in Jamaica, Queens, New York City. While at the First Church of God, they were also a part of a fellowship group led by a charismatic woman called Saturday Noonday Prayer (or the Prayer Band). “She strayed away from God’s word and started teaching her own word,” explains McPhearson. The First Church of God’s pastor tried to shut the group down, but the woman left, bringing McPhearson’s grandmother and three of her great aunts along as her followers. She asked them to call her “Black Jesus in the Flesh,” “The Prophetess,” and “Queen of the South.” She controlled their lives through fear, punishment, isolation, and ridicule and took their money in tithes and offerings. This caused a deep family divide. As the woman’s demands increased, she twisted and manipulated the bible to fit her own teaching. McPhearson’s grandmother escaped by moving to Charlotte in 1987, eventually joined by all four of her sisters. Their faith in God helped the women see how far away they had been led.
In A Fall From Grace, McPhearson depicts this honest self-evaluation with transparent crystals encasing a bible and the Holy Trinity. The women, all church mothers, are present as busts. Sculptor and visiting instructor Stephen Hayes gave McPhearson the skills to realize her vision. (“He did a mold on my face before I went home and tried it on my grandmother’s and aunt’s face.”) The exhibition also includes five stained glass portraits, one for each woman, named for the biblical figure most closely matching her life experience.
“My faith is strong because of my grandmother and my aunts,” says McPhearson. “I want people who see this work to see the strength of black women. You can go back through our history and see the struggle that we’ve been through.”
A Fall From Grace was set to open in Durham’s NorthStar Church of the Arts, but instead—for now—McPhearson’s father helped her install it in a temporary gallery in their home.
While intensely personal, the women in A Fall From Grace have a broader lesson to share, no matter your faith.
As McPhearson puts it: “If you are honest with yourself, you are able to realize: ‘This isn’t right, I need to fix this about myself in order to get where I need to be.’”