Bruggeman contemplates loss and hope in new collection of paintings.

Saint Paul artist Daniel Bruggeman approached his latest collection of paintings with a bird’s-eye view. “The Heavens” took shape last spring when Bruggeman was at a friend’s home in Northern Minnesota and looking for a new perspective from which to paint a series interpreting nature.

Dan Bruggeman
Artist Dan Bruggeman in his studio off West Seventh Street. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“The day was beautiful, and the birds were really singing,” he recalled. “So I climbed up on the roof of his house. And I photographed. I wanted to be at eye level with the trees. I didn’t want to be looking up because there was such a beautiful pattern to the trees.”

An exhibit of “The Heavens” will open with a reception from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, October 22, at Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis. The watercolors explore the connections between heaven and earth as well as the need for stewards of a Midwestern landscape that is increasingly threatened.

“At some point as I was painting them, I thought about the beautiful backdrop of the silhouette of treetops. It occurred to me that this is where the heavens are. And then I thought, there’s got to be context. You can’t really think about where the deities exist if you’re not grounded on earth.”

“At some point as I was painting them, I thought about the beautiful backdrop of the silhouette of treetops,” Bruggeman said. “It occurred to me that this is where the heavens are. And then I thought, there’s got to be context. You can’t really think about where the deities exist if you’re not grounded on earth.”

The paintings reflect Bruggeman’s concern about the natural world “and the delicate and precarious relationship that humans have with it,” he said. “That, and my inability to square my personal history with religion and the symbolism of a deity that provided this marvelous environment for us.”

A godlike caring for the environment.

While Bruggeman was photographing at tree level, he heard with new clarity the sound of the birds around him. Two of the paintings in “The Heavens” reflect that. Their subtitles are drawn from the sounds made by the birds of Northern Minnesota.

“The birds say something like ‘chirp, chirp, chip’ followed by a tinny something something, something else,” he said. “It may sound like gibberish, but such interpretations of nature are the avenue of caring for the environment, and it couldn’t be more godlike.”

A professor in the Fine Arts Department at Carleton College, Bruggeman has had his paintings regularly exhibited at Groveland Gallery. Over the past 30 years, his work has also been shown across the United States.


Dan Bruggeman
"Small Things Recoil Into Silence," a landscape painting by Saint Paul artist Dan Bruggeman.

Every picture tells a story.

His landscapes in “The Heavens” range in size from 8-by-10-inch to 42-by-42-inch. They include “The Heavens (clee-ip, clee-ip, clee-ip),” “The Heavens (ti-DEE-di-di),” “Paradise (for a few),” “When Great Trees Fall,” “An Annunciation” and “The Perfect Shape of Our Absence.”

“When Great Trees Fall” takes its title from a poem by Maya Angelou written in response to the death of her friend, civil rights activist James Baldwin. Bruggeman’s painting is a reflection on Angelou as well as the recent deaths of his mother and mother-in-law.

Amid the void there is hope.

For “The Perfect Shape of Our Absence,” Bruggeman was again thinking about loss. He painted two chairs looking out into a forest. Bruggeman said he sometimes sees his landscapes as “resembling a stage set that is either awaiting a play or lamenting the departure of the actors.”

In his artist’s statement for the Groveland exhibit, Bruggeman writes, “These tiny vignettes might be playful if not for the suggestion of loss. But still, amid that void, this landscape offers hope that what once existed may live on, and that the sentimental might give way to something eternal…. For our children’s sake, we have to do our best to remain somehow faithful that we can turn things around.”

Bruggeman said his approach to painting Midwestern landscapes has changed dramatically over the last 20 years with what he sees as an increased need for stewardship. He has also become more mindful of the people who have been stewards of the environment in the past, including Native Americans.


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A new home base for his painting.

Bruggeman was a resident of Macalester-Groveland. As he contemplates his future paintings, he is looking forward to living and working near downtown Saint Paul. “My wife and I bought this 1917 warehouse about five years ago,” he said. “It was originally built by a butcher who had his shop downtown and stored his beef and pork carcasses and wagons there. It served many other businesses, but was purchased and turned into studio spaces by an artist in the 1990s. I rented studio space there for many years and offered to buy it when the previous owner was planning to sell.

“At first, I was just going to leave it as studio rental, but after Mary and an architect friend walked through, they decided we should renovate it into a living and working space just for us. It may be the second smartest thing we’ve ever done, after having kids. It’s a little industrial, but we like the quirkiness of the neighborhood.”

Bruggeman will be on hand at the opening reception of the “The Heavens.” He will be joined by Saint Paul artist Justin Terlecki, who will be opening an exhibit of his paintings titled “Walking Distance” at Groveland also on October 22. Both exhibits will remain on view through November 26. For information, visit

— Anne Murphy


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