Art can seem obscure to the distant observer. It helps when one knows a thing or two about the artist. That is the beauty of “Art Speaks” at the Minnesota History Center. The current exhibit includes more than 160 works by 110 Minnesota artists—paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs drawn from the Minnesota Historical Society’s permanent collection. The art was acquired over the last 15 years and dates from the 1850s to the 2020s.

“The artists in the exhibition are fellow Minnesotans,” said senior curator Brian Szott. “They might be our neighbors or art teachers or relatives or from the same hometown. As such, we have an instant familiarity with them. It’s like when you’re on a plane or waiting in line at Disneyland or sitting on a beach in Mexico and find that the people next to you are also from Minnesota. You instantly have something in common and easily engage in conversation.

“I think that’s how the art in this exhibition resonates with the viewer,” Szott said. “We may not actually know the artists, but in a way we do. It makes what they’re saying through their art less distant, less foreign.”

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"Self Portrait at 60 (after Beckmann)," an oil on panel by Patricia Olson of Ramsey Hill.
Five of the artists hail from neighborhoods served by MyVillager, including Summit-University painter Melba Price, Lowertown painter Dan Bruggeman, Lowertown artist Ta-coumba Aiken, Macalester-Groveland photographer Chris Faust and Ramsey Hill painter Patricia Olson.
 
Price said she was delighted to have her painting, “Expulsion,” included in the exhibit. The gouache on paper shows a woman with a suitcase in hand. It dates to the mid-1990s, and Price had not seen it in years. “It was nice to see it out in the world again,” she said. “It was like hanging out with an old friend. It’s always great to have your work seen and recognized, especially alongside so many artists whose work I admire.
 
“With an estimated 84 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homeland, ‘Expulsion’ seems more poignant then ever,” Price said. “Generally, though, I don’t have a preconceived idea of what my work needs to say to the viewer. For me, the work is open-ended, available for the viewer to bring their own ideas to the process.”
 
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"Expulsion," a gouache on paper by Summit-University painter Melba Price.

Bruggeman has several works in the Historical Society’s permanent collection. Included in “Art Speaks” is his painting, “and the feather drifted silently to earth, as though it meant something,” a gouache on paper. It was inspired during a weekend at a northern Minnesota farm. While he was sitting around a campfire, a flock of trumpeter swans flew overhead and a feather floated to the ground.

“I’m always looking for nature to reveal itself,” said Bruggeman, whose art often focuses on the dissonance between nature and manmade structures. “I kept thinking this was one of those moments.” In much the way that people who attend a concert leave with music still playing in their ears and hearts, the floating feather and the sound of the swans stayed with Bruggeman. “So I made a painting of it,” he said.

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"And the feather drifted silently to earth, as though it meant something," a gouache on paper by Lowertown artist Dan Bruggeman.

Bruggeman hopes “Art Speaks” fills a void. “When we first moved here in the early 1990s, the Twin Cities had a reputation for having a lot of artists in the gallery community,” he said. The quality of the art hasn’t changed, he said, but there aren’t nearly as many galleries.

Aiken, the recent recipient of a fine arts fellowship from the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, is known for his paintings, murals and public art. “It’s an honor to have work shown with 100 other artists who are part of Minnesota history,” he said, “Judy Onofrio, my friend Jim Denomie who just died, and so many others—all with different expressions of art, but all Minnesota artists.”

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“The Chosen,” an acrylic and mixed media on canvas by Lowertown artist Ta-coumba Aiken.

 

Aiken has several works in the Historical Society’s permanent collection. “The Chosen,” an acrylic and mixed media on canvas, is included in “Art Speaks.” As with all of his art, he hopes viewers will see a story in the work.

“I create my art to heal the hearts of people by invoking a positive spirit,” Aiken said. “I want the scratches and lines and movement of a piece to be something people identify with. One person might see one thing and someone else another, but then they can come together and have a conversation about what they see.”

Faust has two works in “Art Speaks”—“Alley Scene, Juliet Ave. St. Paul, MN” and “CNW Switchyard, Worthington, MN.” Of the Juliet Avenue photo, he said, “It’s in my alley. A common study in art has always been working with a common subject to make it unusual or extraordinary.

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“Alley Scene, Juliet Ave. St. Paul, MN,” a silver gelatin print by Macalester-Groveland photographer Chris Faust.

“Most of the artists in ‘Art Speaks’ have or have had successful careers,” Faust said. “It’s an impressive group of Minnesota artists that will say a lot about the art community in this state. We’re all in good company.”

Faust considers an exhibit like “Art Speaks” to be especially important today. “The old brick-and-mortar galleries are shutting down and going virtual,” he said. “So it’s harder to show work. It’s a brave new world.”

Olson, an art and art history professor emerita at Saint Catherine University, said her work in “Art Speaks” is of great significance to her personally. “‘Self-Portrait at 60 (after Beckmann)’ marked my 60th birthday,” she said. The oil on panel is based on a self-portrait by the German modernist painter Max Beckmann. Olson said she hopes the painting offers “a sense of what it was to be a white woman living in the middle of a big continent at the beginning of the 21st century who is trying to insert herself and her experience into art history.

“The concerns of artists speak to what society as a whole is experiencing, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously,” Olson said. “These concerns often prove to be a harbinger of where our society is going, and not just a mirror of the present. A close study of this exhibition will reward the viewer in many ways.”

“Art Speaks” will remain on view through July 31 at the History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. Admission is $12, $8 for children ages 5-17, $10 for seniors, college students and military personnel. For information, visit mnhs.org or call 651-259-3000.

— Anne Murphy

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