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"Peter Von Tiesenhausen"
Peter Von Tiesenhausen.
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Peter Von Tiesenhausen, "Observance," 2004, oil on canvas, 14" X 11".
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"100 charred recycled Christmas trees"
Peter Von Tiesenhausen, Also from mecca, 100 charred recycled Christmas trees strung from fishing line to form an image of an eye from one viewpoint. mecca was installed at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Calgary, in 2003.
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Peter Von Tiesenhausen, "mecca," a 16' square x 16' high pyramid made from stacked and stapled drywall scraps.
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"100 recycled bee box lids, charred and carved"
Peter Von Tiesenhausen, "100 recycled bee box lids, charred and carved," 2003, shown at TrépanierBaer, Calgary. Also shown: bust, cast iron on solid wood base.
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"The Watchers aboard CCGS Henry Larsen, seen enroute to the Arctic."
Peter Von Tiesenhausen, "The Watchers aboard CCGS Henry Larsen, seen enroute to the Arctic."
PETER VON TIESENHAUSEN: His Land and Art
Watch It All Go Wrong…
By Joe Obad
Artist Peter von Tiesenhausen and video editor Noel Bégin are taking a break from combing through 10 years of footage for an upcoming documentary. Watching chickadees fly sorties to the bird feeder outside his kitchen window, von Tiesenhausen reflects on the past revealed in raw video and exclaims, “Thank God everything went wrong!”
“Having things go wrong always happens for a reason,” he says, “whether it is the truck breaking down in the middle of nowhere or a painting not working out. If I’m open to the chaos that follows, the right path presents itself. Call it fate, karma, whatever – but something better than I could ever have imagined happens when my initial plan falls apart.”
The von Tiesenhausen story begins in the place where his life continues to unfold today: on the family farm near Demmitt, Alberta, an hour northwest of Grande Prairie. The third son of Baltic-German immigrants, at the age of six von Tiesenhausen picked rocks with his brothers to clear the family’s main field; at nine, he chose the site for the house where he lives today with his wife and two sons.
Throughout von Tiesenhausen’s life and artistic practice his profound fidelity to the land of his youth has been a constant. After quitting art college, he worked as a roughneck and gold prospector in the Yukon and Antarctica until he was 30, when he began painting full time. Von Tiesenhausen’s first works were traditional landscape paintings, but as he witnessed the landscape around him changing, the natural elements in his paintings began to retreat – driven back by the advance of pipelines and clear-cut logging within his beloved Peace River Country.
In 1991 von Tiesenhausen began a series of large installations, or what he calls land works. Works such as Ship and Tower reflected his devotion to the land and, in part, his reaction to the developing world around it. More than 110 feet long and built entirely from woven willows, Ship evokes the journey and memories of von Tiesenhausen’s ancestors coming from Europe. Tower, a creation of willows woven through two aspen trees, suggests an ancient well while also evoking the sour gas flare stacks against which the artist has vigorously fought. (Von Tiesenhausen uniquely claims copyright over his land as art – a surprisingly powerful tool to fight the energy industry. Respecting the copyright, a pipeline was diverted around his land in 1997, costing the company an estimated half million dollars. In December 2003, ConocoPhillips agreed to an out-of-court settlement stating the company had violated his art and land when its equipment damaged trees on his property.)
Of all the artist’s work, none has captured more imagination than The Watchers. Five eight-foot-high human figures, they were born of local spruce under the violence of von Tiesenhausen’s chainsaw and christened in flaming diesel fuel. The Watchers, as much as any of von Tiesenhausen’s work, demonstrate themes found throughout the natural world: transformation, fire, rebirth and observation.
“The five guys,” as von Tiesenhausen often calls them, were placed across his land, inspiring numerous paintings and drawings. After painting the figures atop a black shape, von Tiesenhausen imagined the figures on a building. This led to the figures being mounted on the Louise Block in Calgary in 1997. Eventually The Watchers journeyed across the country, mostly in the back of von Tiesenhausen’s beat-up Ford pickup, with the exception of the lift they caught aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker from Newfoundland to the Arctic.
As much as The Watchers observed Canada, Canadians observed them. Von Tiesenhausen captured this interaction on video whenever he could, often handing his $4,000 camera to strangers to capture The Watchers’ passage through the country. He and Bégin are now working furiously to edit this journey into a video documentary.
“The whole country was part of The Watchers’ journey,” von Tiesenhausen says. “Canadians everywhere helped make it happen. They filmed the journey where I couldn’t. When things were going wrong, and I had no idea how to move ahead, someone would come along to help me get the guys to the next point.
“Canadians’ interactions with The Watchers are more a part of the journey than anything I did. There are some hilarious moments, like the kid shooting at the guys with his cap gun, and there are deeply tragic parts, like when we arrived in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland, after three teens had drowned while playing near sea ice. I intended to send the figures out to sea on the ice, but it was inconceivable after that tragedy.”
Von Tiesenhausen eventually chose to mount the figures on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic for three months. After that, The Watchers continued on to Tuktoyaktuk before finally returning home to Demmitt, an impressive 37,000-kilometre journey.“That journey was more profound than anything I could have imagined on my own. I’m in awe of what The Watchers have seen,” he concludes quietly.
His awe, however, hasn’t stopped him from working on new things. In counterbalance to the tedious hours of editing, he has been busy painting in the studio and imagining new installation projects. Although reluctant to mount shows devoted entirely to painting after years of working on installations and The Watchers, he is now creating paintings that strive to capture the rhythms of his land, perhaps better than ever.
“The paintings are not really so different than the land works,” he explains. “With the land works and the five guys I explored this land and its materials, and what I could make of them. With the paintings I am pushing to see how far I can take paint – how far paint can take me – while being true to paint’s materiality, the power of this place, and our life here.”
Sometimes von Tiesenhausen learns the most from works that never leave the studio. “I only send to galleries what I think can stand alone, but those pieces that don’t work… again, thank God they go wrong because they tell me so much about painting and my progress. It isn’t about producing things for the market. It’s an exploration.”
Exploration or not, the art world is paying attention. In March, Globe and Mail critic Gary Michael Dault described how von Tiesenhausen’s “pigment seethes and boils with urgency” in a glowing review of a sold-out show at Toronto’s Clint Roenisch Gallery.
Big city praise does not dazzle von Tiesenhausen, though. He is more involved in northern Alberta than ever. For Peace River’s winter games, he celebrated the region’s aspens in 230 studies of individual trees, painted on aspen pulp with aspen ashes. Like a Japanese temple’s frail rice paper, the studies hung together creating a hall of contemplation.
This commitment to place and materials will certainly be central to his installation at Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery, July 9 to September 6, but von Tiesenhausen is cagey about what he has planned: “I have some ideas about what I’m going to do, but a lot has to fall into place. Who knows what could screw up between now and then?”
Much will likely go wrong. Maybe, if he is lucky, just enough for things to come out right.
Peter von Tiesenhausen’s work can be viewed at TrépanierBaer in Calgary, Willock & Sax Gallery in Waterton Lakes National Park, Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto and James Baird Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and at www.tiesenhausen.net