When Irish-American folk singer-songwriter and author Kevin O’Donnell, 66, said goodbye to Chicago four years ago in favor of a lakeside home in Door County, Wisconsin, he had a plan. “It was never my intention to leave behind nearly a half-century of artistic endeavor to merely fade-to-black like the spectacular sunsets over the bay of Green Bay.” He said. He convinced his wife, Colleen, they should move to “the quiet side” of the peninsula where they could watch the sun rise out of the water every day. “Anyone can view a sunset,” He claims. “That’s easy. But sunrises? Now that takes effort. So, every day we witness a new beginning, and start each day reminding ourselves how fortunate we are to live here. “Every day is a rebirth.” He stated.
Rebirth indeed. Since “retiring” O’Donnell has, parlayed his past successes as a story-teller into another genre: fine art photography - with the people and places of Door County frequently featured as his subjects. In just a few short years he has taken his place as one of the area’s most preeminent and respected photographers in an arts community loaded with them.
O’Donnell will be on-hand to exhibit about 30 framed pieces of his award-winning Door County photography in a one-man show at the annual iBAM Celebration of Irish Culture, taking place October 22 & 23, in the 2nd floor Art Gallery of the Irish-American Heritage Center.
His works will feature selected nightscape images (combining the Milky Way and other celestial wonders with Earth-bound foreground features), a lighthouse series - mostly of the Great Lakes region, images from his forthcoming book (his third), Behind The Door - a unique collection of photographs and essays on the diversity of the Door Peninsula, and a number of prints from his intriguing “I AM” project - a developing gallery of story-portraits with accompanying text and testimony submitted by the individuals on how they perceive themselves - and how they would prefer the world to perceive them.
O’Donnell reminisces: “When I think about it, I’ve always been a storyteller and this is just another chapter in that process. Going back to my early days in Chicago, I started my creative career in Irish music as a singer and lyricist, moved on to writing poetry and short stories - eventually authoring and publishing two books. I then got involved with non-equity live theater at the Racine Theatre Guild for a number of years.” More recently (2012), O’Donnell returned to the recording studio for an ambitious solo album, Deep Is The Well, produced by Maurice Lennon (Stockton’s Wing). The themed album features many of Chicago’s finest Irish musicians behind a unique, yet seemingly familiar collection of songs written and performed by O’Donnell. It, along with its comprehensive interactive website deepisthewell.com relates the fictitious (though historically accurate) account of immigration where upon multiple descendants of a 19th century Irish family retell their 170-year struggles in America as they strive to achieve the American Dream. It is considered by many a holistic and landmark effort.
O’Donnell admits, “With the culmination of all that experience, I now find myself living in one of the most beautiful places on the planet relating stories through still photography and a niche YouTube channel that has garnered nearly 1,000 subscribers and receives more than 10,000 views per month. Who knew?” He asked.
As a “blow-in” (outsider) to the thriving native Door County art community, O’Donnell said he has been able to capture a different perspective of his subjects. John Nelson, owner of Door Guide Publishing in Sister Bay (and who grew up on Chicago’s northwest side), has used many of O’Donnell’s photographs in his guide books on Door County. “Kevin has a unique ability to capture the essence of the peninsula’s culture, people, history, and landscape in a way other photographers somehow miss. I really like his stuff. I just wish he would bring me more of it.”
True to form, O’Donnell confesses to producing work at a leisurely pace and as it turns out publishers and galleries are eager for that sort of thing. Nelson concluded, “After all, how many pictures of Cave Point does one really need?”
O’Donnell continues, “I’m just up here taking photographs for my own edification, really. It’s great therapy and it fulfills my never-ending desire to be creative and I was content with that. But early on, Colleen encouraged me to enter a few of my photos in the state-wide Wisconsin Great Waters Photography and Writing Project sponsored by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. One of my photos was selected as the cover for their 2019-2020 calendar. Over 80,000 copies were distributed at the State Fair and to visitors at every State Park. Now I have publishers calling me for licensing, (including the Irish American News), and there’s a book deal in the works. My framed images are on display in high-end restaurants up the peninsula and the only piece I ever submitted to a juried exhibit at the prestigious Hardy Gallery in Ephraim, was not only accepted, but sold to a collector in California.
His YouTube channel (Kevin O’Donnell Behind the Door), is part cultural vlog, part photo workshop, and part history lesson. He entertains and educates as he talks to camera taking his viewers on his rambles throughout the county; planning, scouting, and executing his photographs. “It’s like ‘ride-along’ storytelling!” He quips. “Time consuming? Yes.” (admitting that each minute of final video requires about 1 hour of editing), “but it’s very rewarding. I love it! I can shape the story as I go - often using 4 cameras at once combining not only video, but stereo audio, drone footage, creating sound design, and writing and recording voice-over. Each episode is its own story,” He adds. O’Donnell has published nearly 50 episodes of Behind The Door to date and many of the images taken on those adventures will be on display at his iBAM exhibition.
O’Donnell admits he’s surprised at this later-in-life success and prefers to maintain a low-key lifestyle. “The Door County pace and long winters take some getting used to. It’s not for everyone.” He said.
“I often field questions from friends and relatives as to what the winters are like here? In a word,” He stated, “quiet.” And to be honest, no more severe than a Chicago winter, just longer. But that affords me the time to focus on and improve my storytelling skills. I recently had a 500 square foot studio built that looks out on to Lake Michigan - a space I use exclusively for my writing, my music, my photography, and now, my YouTube channel. It has proven to be like Miracle Grow® for my creative spirit. I am eager to return to Chicago and honored by the invitation of the IAHC to exhibit the latest in my life-long story-telling saga.
Kevin O’Donnell’s very limited edition fine art images will be available for purchase throughout iBAM with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the IAHC. All prints are on 100% cotton rag fine art paper, numbered, signed, and professionally framed using the highest quality archival components and include a Certificate of Authenticity.
Kevin O'Donnell is an award-winning author and photographer, YouTube content creator, and master story-teller. He moved to Door County in 2017 upon retiring from a thirty-seven year career as a packaging engineer in the pharmaceutical industry. His years of international travel during that time nurtured his interest in photography.
Kevin’s photographs have been featured in numerous publications; most recently: Wisconsin’s Great Waterways Calendar, The Door County GO Guide, and the cover of the Irish American News.
Over the past four years Kevin has been working on a collection of photographs and essays capturing the unique cultural, social, economic, historic, and natural diversity of the Door peninsula. The “Behind The Door” book is scheduled for publication in 2022.
In support of that project Kevin launched a YouTube channel late in 2021. “Kevin O’Donnell Behind The Door” is part vlog, part photographer’s workshop, and part history lesson. Each episode weaves a story of the diverse richness and beauty of the Door peninsula; “Things well beyond Highways 42 and 57 - and the reach of most tourists and visitors. It’s more about the year-rounders, the traditions, the culture, the disappearing Door.” He says.“Think: Norbert Blei, camera in hand, meets National Geographic.”
Door County’s unique maritime history and relationship with the iron ore boats are a particular favorite and what first drew him to the area.
Subjects hold secrets. Whether portraiture, landscapes, architecture, or industrial, I am challenged and intrigued by the stories they project. I often return multiple times to a subject until I am satisfied that I have visually related that story in a unique and visceral way.
My goal is not to capture a memory, but a moment. I’m happy to leave the picture post card photography to others.