Summer through Art: The Mike McDonnell Papers

Various containers painted by Mike McDonnell.
Colorful Still Life, unidentified, by Mike McDonnell

Coming into the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives this summer, I had very little idea of what archivists actually did. As an English major, I had studied the wide range of career fields through studying abroad, teaching, and mentoring. However, my History minor remained untouched. As I hurtled toward my senior year here at Grand Valley, I began to wonder what kinds of job opportunities I could find with my minor and discovered archivist was among them. The first place I contacted was the Grand Valley Special Collections and University Archives and I am glad I did. Thanks to the Archivist for Collection Management, Annie Benefiel, I was able to get an overview of what the job of an archivist entails. Her passion and patience in mentoring me through every task, led me to have a greater understanding and appreciation for the important work archivists do.

In my first few days, I was given tasks to help preserve and promote just some of the documents Grand Valley has to offer. I began with transcribing and scanning letters from World War II, reliving the blossoming relationship of a young couple separated by the sea. Next, I tracked down papers for a researcher, sifting through an unfamiliar world of politics from committee meetings to luncheons, to letters about planning and numerous copies of speeches. Then came my biggest task: the papers of Mike McDonnell.

Mike McDonnell standing next to his art.
Mike McDonnell standing next to “House on a Stool” which currently graces the wall outside the Administration Office on the 4th floor of Mary Idema Pew Library at GVSU.

When I began working on the Mike McDonnell collection, I had no idea who this man was or what his story was. Through researching his own work, interviews, and photos, I feel like I’ve met a friend. In organizing and processing the collection, it became clear that Mike McDonnell was someone who understood that his life’s passion was to make art, it was as simple as that. In many of the newspaper articles I scanned, he said time and time again, that making art was never about money. He acknowledged he could make a respectable amount on a painting, but never had the idea of money in his mind. I believe he was interested in seeing how far his art could go. Whether it was a specific subject, or a certain style of painting, he was always experimenting and documenting those important artistic journeys.

Mike McDonnell with portrait of young woman.
Mike McDonnell with a portrait of a young woman behind him.

Though his interviews provided insight into his professional life, Mike McDonnell’s personal photos also revealed who he truly was. Looking through the pictures, you get the sense that he was hardworking, friendly, and goofy person who liked to hang out with his friends and farm animals. In the photographs donated to Grand Valley, his work can be seen lingering in the background or even taking center stage. His life was surrounded by art in various forms and his paintings, I believe, reflected that.

After getting up close and personal with his donated belongings, it becomes clear why this collection needed to be preserved. Mike McDonnell is a key figure in the history of Michigan painters. His attention to detail, the wide range of subjects he experiments with, and his precision through the medium of watercolor allowed me to appreciate the fact that Grand Valley has this collection, pieces of his work on display on its campuses, and that I was lucky enough to process this one of kind collection.

Mike McDonnell in his studio.
Mike McDonnell surrounded by his art.

Every Wednesday, I’d arrive on the Grand Valley Allendale Campus, go over to the Seidman House and get lost for the next four hours in paintings, receipts, slides, and photos all relating to Mike McDonnell and his work. I would walk out into the hot summer afternoon and think of how to see the world like an artist of his caliber would.¬†Looking back at this summer, it has seemed to fly by in a sea of green folders and papers of all shapes, sizes, and ages, and I’ll miss it all. I’m so grateful to the Grand Valley Special Collections and Archives Department for taking me under their wing, allowing me to have been a part of processing this wonderful collection, and getting the grand tour of life as an archivist. It has been truly unforgettable.

Andrea Bazan


The Mike McDonnell papers (RHC-120)¬†were given to GVSU Special Collections & University Archives in May 2017 in conjunction with a gift of McDonnell’s art to the GVSU Art Gallery. The materials are available for research use in the reading room in Seidman House.