Leslie Donaldson: Keeping Art in the Heart of Michigan


Thanksgiving Day, you won’t find Leslie Donaldson in the kitchen, apron-clad with a turkey baster in hand. You won’t find her slaving over a stove to boil gravy or whipping up a casserole. Rather, you’ll find her relaxing with her loved ones enjoying a traditional meal — out.

“For Thanksgiving, we love to go to the English Inn in Lansing with our family,” said Donaldson. “Usually the holiday season is very busy for me, so we just try to really relax and enjoy the time that we have together.”

But “very busy” doesn’t begin to describe the life of this local artist. As executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing (ACGL), Donaldson spends most of her pre-holiday season planning a tradition that Lansingites know, love and look forward to year after year: Silver Bells in the City.

When Donaldson came on board the ACGL in 2005, Silver Bells in the City and all it entails became her project (not to mention the dozens of other programs and initiatives the ACGL is responsible for). As the Lansing tradition of lighting the tree approaches its 25th anniversary, Donaldson looks forward to sharing the event with the community.

Donaldson admits that it’s much more than a tree lighting and fireworks show; it’s about the people, sense of community and experience that thousands share on that one night each November.

“I think a lot of people are aware of the parade and the fireworks, but they’re not necessarily aware of 50 arts and cultural groups that are performing in 15 activity sites,” said Donaldson. “Everything is free that night; you can visit Impression 5, the Transportation Museum, the City Market … and hear music there and hang out with the vendors.”

Whether you partake in the parade, the activities or just come downtown to grab a hot cocoa, Donaldson hopes visitors take a moment to appreciate a tradition that may sometimes be taken for granted.

“The most challenging thing, especially right now, is fundraising,” said Donaldson. “The economy is still challenged, and it’s easy to think when an event has been around for as long as [Silver Bells has] … people think it’s always going to be there, no matter what.”

Though fundraising may have been a challenge this year, Donaldson knows it is not unique to Silver Bells. With the support of community members and local businesses, Donaldson ensured the Silver Bells show is a go for 2009. As a lover of Lansing and the local arts scene, carrying on traditions is an important part of her beloved city’s charm.

Graduating from Michigan State University (MSU) in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, Donaldson planted some serious roots that would bring her back to Lansing a few years later.

After MSU, she went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). This led Donaldson to study electronic and computer music at Brown University through a partnership program between the schools. She completed her masters of fine arts in painting and print making from RISD in 1998. It was then that Donaldson headed back to Michigan for a brief stop on her way to Chicago, never planning to call Lansing home.

“When I came back to this community, I came back not intending to stay here,” said Donaldson. “But what’s nice about this community is that it’s very welcoming. If you have an idea and you want to pursue it, it’s possible to have that happen here.”

And did Donaldson ever come back with ideas! Today, the cities of Lansing and East Lansing are sprinkled with touches of Donaldson’s ideas and artistic opportunities. Not only is she an artist herself, but she also spends much of her time creating spaces for the community to share in artistic adventures together.

One such adventure is Scene Metrospace, located on Charles Street in East Lansing, founded by Donaldson and leaders from the City of East Lansing in 2004. Wanting a space to house performance art endeavors of her own, the 1,500-square-foot space now showcases dozens of emerging artist’s work and is equipped with a raised stage so it can house other various forms of artistic expression, too.

“Part of the way in which we were able to work with the City of East Lansing to make [Scene] possible is we wanted to make it a driver for economic impact in downtown,” said Donaldson. “Essentially, we wanted it to be an attraction; we wanted it to bring in younger folks and give an opportunity for emerging artists to be very creative.”

Five years later the space still hosts regular performance art and is becoming a hub for creative minds to gather and invest in their knowledge and innovative thought; values that Donaldson carries into her daily life and personal work.

Though you may not see her work at Scene, Donaldson displays the fruits of her own artistic labor in locations throughout the region. Her most recent pieces were featured in an exhibit at the Lansing Art Gallery, a local nonprofit membership organization located on Washington Square in downtown Lansing.

The exhibit, titled “Characters, Creatures and Comfort,” ran September 4 through October 23, 2009, and featured more than 100 sculptures made from miscellaneous objects as well as paintings on paper of the sculptures themselves.

“[The] show [at the Lansing Art Gallery] is about two and a half years of artwork,” said Donaldson. “After you’ve worked on a body of work for a long time, and you put up a show that includes the entire body, you start to reflect on what you did and where you’re going.”

As she pulled up her latest work on her computer, revealing patterns and exploration in this world of found objects and distorted scraps, the passion for her art began to shine through in every word she spoke.

“I’m interested in considering doing an instillation piece with some of these objects, and sculptures that are in the show. I’ve also been making paintings on paper; I only have three done right now, they’re based on the work in the show but they’re pattern-oriented,” said Donaldson. “I’m interested in wallpaper or an environment that surrounds you with the art itself.”

As Donaldson gave a glimpse of her new work, the question that inevitably comes up when viewing any piece of art arose: where does she draw inspiration for the pieces? Turns out, it goes right back to her family.

“My father is a taxidermist, so when I was a kid I would run around in his studio and make sculptures out of Styrofoam and pins and felt,” recalled Donaldson, “and the show at Lansing Art Gallery gets back to that … Now I’m starting to combine the paper representations of those sculptures and adding animal hooves and chicken legs. I don’t understand what I do, I just do it,” said Donaldson with a smile.

In the future, Donaldson also hopes to incorporate sound pieces back into her sculptures and revisit her days of electronic and computer music studies at Brown. She also dreams of exhibiting her pieces on a national scale if the right opportunity (and time) comes along.

“I’ve only had regional shows so far, so I’d love to have an exhibit in New York or Chicago … and the funny thing is, I’ve got connections in all those places,” said Donaldson modestly, “It’s finding the time to pursue it that’s really challenging.”

When the time is right, though, Donaldson will be ready. She’s surrounded by a community of innovative and artistic minds, and the sky’s the limit for Lansing area creatives.

“I really want to see this region thrive as far as the arts and cultural scene are concerned. I’m doing everything I possibly can to make that happen,” said Donaldson. “This is a great community, and it has a lot of potential. I feel like we’re on the cusp of something really exciting here.”

Tags: acgl, arts council of greater lansing, lansing art gallery, lansing arts council, lansing christmas, leslie donaldson, silver bells, [scene]

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