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Interview with Joyce McDonald: moulded by the Spirit

07 July 2023

Joyce McDonald realised that she had feet of clay. Now she works with it. She talks to Susan Gray

Ryan Page

The Revd Joyce McDonald

The Revd Joyce McDonald

“HOLY SPIRIT” are the last words I hear from the Revd Joyce McDonald before our Zoom call cuts out. The Brooklyn-based artist and minister at the Church of the Open Door had been explaining how she did not map out her sermons when she was called to preach, “but I need the Holy Spirit.”

The creative process behind her sculptures, on display in her first solo UK show at Maureen Paley’s Studio M gallery, are similarly unscheduled and free-form. “Last night, I happened to be waking at 3.20, and it was the function to create that I always feel. I can’t plan what I make. I never know what’s coming. I never know.”

The minister’s path to ordination in 2009 and art-world recognition 11 years later have not been straightforward. After she had overcome 30 years of addiction, her pastor, Mark Taylor, suggested that she follow in his footsteps to the Union Seminary in New York. In-church training over six years was completed by an extension course, competing against 28 other candidates for three places.

Ordained and licensed to preach in 2009, McDonald became a chaplain with the New York State Chaplain Task Force two years later. She is the founder of “Keep Your Pearls Girls”, a ministry for girls aged four to 24, focused on HIV awareness-raising, mentoring women in the community, and women leaving prison.

She writes to women prisoners, visits them in shelters, and sits by their bedside in hospital. Her ministry supports them in becoming smart and safe, while finding inner beauty and dignity. She uses sculptures, painting, poetry, and songs to help people to find healing from the pains of their past. The cornerstones of her ministry to disadvantaged women are: “Whatever you’re going to be, you’re now becoming,” and “HIV is not the end — having no hope is.”

Maureen Paley Studio MBowed in Grace, glazed ceramic (2021)

The deep foundations of McDonald’s own survivorship fuel her ministry and advocacy. Brought up in a loving family, known locally as the black Brady Bunch, she experienced traumatic milestones on her journey to heroin use: childhood sexual assault by a neighbour, and the death of her beloved father, a post-office worker, when she was in her twenties.

“I can remember the exact day I went into hard drugs,” she says. “It was the night of my father’s funeral, because he was a strong figure in our family. I realise now I had him in the wrong place because, for me, he was God. I didn’t say he was God, but every time something happened, he would rescue me. He led the family. I made a decision that night because I couldn’t take the pain of him dying.”


TWENTY-FIVE years later, McDonald was in a Manhattan detox, her two daughters having found her a place. “They had detoxed me. I remember standing by the window, and it is the first time in 25 years that I cried for my dad. And I had been to 60 detoxes, but the last detox I went in with Christ; I had him. That’s the only different thing. I always went back out those other 59 times, because I started trying to get clean in 1980.”

Her voice breaks with sobs as she continues: “And I’m looking up in the sky through the window crying. I was crying for my father, and I heard a voice. And it was clear. It said: ‘Joyce, you still have a father. He’s in heaven, our father who art in heaven. He was my son. I loaned him. And I brought him back to me.’ I can’t even explain what it did for me to know that.”

Likening the years before her successful detox and rehab in 1994 to the Billie Holiday film Lady Sings the Blues, McDonald says her family gave her unconditional love. She describes her mother as a Proverbs 31 woman: meek, but with wide-open arms. “When she used to find my needles or works in the bathroom, she would say ‘Oh, Joyce has left something in the bathroom.’”

Maureen Paley Studio MConcerned Family, air dry clay, acrylic paint, fabric (1999)

Both McDonald’s daughters were born with health issues, owing to her addiction. “I talk about how my children were born with it. I have a song that God gave me as a testimonial song and talked about how Satan had tried to get a chain on my children, but how God had cleansed them — and they came through. I mean, I got the most wonderful daughters.”

Characterising the time that she was “out there” as a battle between the voices of good and evil, McDonald recalls hearing voices telling her to jump under a train. “When I would be in the train — this is when I was l actively using, and going through what I was going through — the voice would say ‘Jump in front of the train. The train is coming: jump!’ And then another voice would be: ‘No!’ It was the voice telling me the right thing to do. I just was so overwhelmed with everything that was happening.”

Trains were her mobile workshop, where she made hats to sell to support her $100-a-day habit.


WHILE her family continued to attend the Church of the Open Door, where McDonald had sung Mahalia Jackson songs in the choir as a child, she made the most of having their home to herself. “And I would be very happy when my mother went to church, because that was my time to shoot drugs in the house.”

She continues: “I really felt lost, and I didn’t feel a connection with God — because I hadn’t attended church for 30 years, and I went through what I went through. So, I didn’t feel a real connection, but I always would hear a voice.”

One Sunday, that voice took the tangible form of a church service that was being amplified from a tent pitched near by, an outdoor service to bring the message to the streets. “And this disturbing sound came through the window I’ll never forget. I don’t remember necessarily hearing it before. And it was like ‘You can change your life. You don’t have to live like that. Jesus loves you.’ And I tried to shut the window.”

The following Sunday, she heard a voice saying, “Go to church.” But, first, she had to score drugs on York Street, the main shopping street, because withdrawal made her sick, and alleviating symptoms had to take priority over all other activity. “Whatever emergency it was, I couldn’t deal with it, because I was sick.”

She also now realises the episodes of waking sleepiness were signs of overdosing. Recalling little of her journey to the church, she says: “I didn’t see anybody. I must have missed the whole service. But I heard somebody saying — it was the pastor who winds up being my pastor now — and this other preacher: ‘We’ve been waiting for you a long time. Would you like to give your life to Christ?’ And I just walked up.

Maureen Paley Studio MUntitled, glazed ceramic (2021)

“It still always amazed me I didn’t see anybody. God didn’t let me see one face. And my mother was there. I walked up and I just got on my knees. And I was crying. And he was letting me know that God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, and whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. And if I confess with my lips. . . I know that prayer of salvation. I believe it in my heart.

“And I remember repeating it and crying. I don’t remember when I left. I don’t remember getting up. It just happened. And then it was another day’s journey. And I was out back out doing drugs; it didn’t stop me. But I had asked the Holy Spirit to forgive me. I repented of my sins in my heart. But nothing happened that I could see. And I went on.”


THE following spring, she undertook her 60th detox, and, instead of going home afterwards, she entered rehab, run by a “preacher woman” and housed in a former celebrity-drying-out clinic, with photos of Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz on the walls.

Spending 100 days in rehab, without radio or television, and attending church and 12-Step meetings, McDonald had another spiritual experience, seeing a great light in the night sky. When she awoke, her lifelong fear of the dark had gone. “My mother said ‘You are like a different person. Did they give you brain surgery at the detox?’ And we laughed. My mother had a sense of humour.”

For McDonald, the new life of salvation gave her clarity about her neighbourhood. “When I would go somewhere, it’s like, with God I saw things differently, like I had real tall legs and was in the circus.” She would evangelise on the streets to people still struggling with substance issues. “I used to be mad, like people be on the street downtown. They’d be like, ‘You gotta come to Jesus.’ I turned to one of them, saying ‘I don’t have tracks. I give out tracts.’”

Maureen Paley Studio MSurrendered, glazed ceramic (2021)

Embracing faith did not sweep away all problems overnight. Experiences of racism, including annual childhood visits to her parent’s home state of Alabama, in the 1950s, where cinemas and drinking fountains were segregated, and there was widespread promotion of blonde, blue-eyed norms of beauty, led McDonald to bleach her skin. But counselling by her pastor helped her to be at peace with her appearance.

This self-acceptance ran parallel to her working more intently in clay, a practice that she had started at rehab. Diagnosed with HIV in 1995, McDonald became involved with Visual Aids, a New York art organisation supporting HIV-positive artists. In 2016, she won a prize at Visual Aids, and her multimedia work came to the attention of the New York gallery Gordon Robichaux.

Dressed in a bright-yellow dress, McDonald is modest about her work, and bats away any art-world references. “When people said my sculptures were like Rodin, I thought they were talking about a roach spray.” Early enquiries about what medium she preferred to work in were met with the response: “Medium? I don’t have anything to do with Ouija boards.”

One of her earliest works was a large sculpture of a man carrying a little girl: it memorialised her father. I ask whether Mr Senior (2021), a glazed ceramic relief of a kindly bearded face, on a round ceramic plate, is also a tribute to her father. “I believe so,” she says.

She explains that she never knows what kind of art she is going to make, as she is directed by the Spirit: “I don’t set out to make a mermaid or an apple.” All her work at Maureen Paley shows dignified and sometimes pensive figures. On the reverse of Inner Focus, a classical-looking head in air-dry clay with a touch of glitter, a plate reads “Explore, Dream, Discover.”

McDonald says that her earliest works have yet to go on show. “The first art that I did at that programme was the deepest, darkest secrets of my life. I don’t even think they have been on exhibit yet. It was things that happened to me, and it was in clay form. And that’s how I saw it. And that’s how I began to deal with a lot of things.”


The exhibition “Reverend Joyce McDonald” is at Maureen Paley: Studio M, Rochelle School, 7 Playground Gardens, London E2, until 30 July. www.maureenpaley.com

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