News : 2015

"Peter von Tiesenhausen's artwork feeds itself"
Fish Griwkowsky

His work straddles natural materials, optical illusions, functioning boats carved of glacier ice, decades-long endurance pieces, crazy journeys and secret alphabets. If songs haven’t been written about the artist Peter von Tiesenhausen, they’re overdue.


The 56-year-old lives with his family near Demmitt, Alta., on land he’s lived on since childhood, inherited from his dad.


Faced with persistent pestering from big petroleum thirsty for a deep basin of natural gas under his 80-acre estate, von Tiesenhausen did an unheard-of thing in 1996. He copyrighted his land as an ongoing, autonomous, lifelong artwork. Fighting bureaucracy with bureaucracy, he’s been doing amazing, thoughtful and beautiful things with the land since.


To further energize his red-tape force field, von Tiesenhausen at one point announced he’d be charging would-be industrial prospectors $500 an hour for any conversation about his land, forewarning the answer would always be no. The requests stopped coming.


This rebellion alone is a great yarn, but it’s actually just one chapter in von Tiesenhausen’s terrific artistic story. His ongoing projects include the yearly documenting of a life-size, aspen- and willow-branch boat he built in 1997 at the Banff Centre that’s been left to the elements since. Then there are the Watchers — five charred, oversized wooden figures he has carried by truck and Coast Guard icebreaker in a travelling exhibit 30,000 kilometres around Canada.

Which brings us back to his “hello again!” show at Peter Robertson, a re-entry into the commercial art world after about seven years. The art, by and large, echoes his continuing concerns, particularly focusing on those five figures.

“I think I’ve come to the realization that maybe everything I’m doing is based on my art practice,” he notes. “I’m an artist because that’s what people call me, but you know I’m just making things, just trying to have a meaningful existence and be as honest as I can within living a life that’s interesting to me.”


Q: Is that the ideal life for you?


A: It’s so good. I’ve got to clean up my yard, I’ve got a bunch of timbers that are twisted — what will I do with them? I can’t waste anything — I have to recycle them. And you end up with a huge wall with a carving in it. It’s too big to fit in the (Peter Robertson) show, but I’m doing small versions that are refined that’ll be in. These are chainsaw/axe carvings of mountains, kind of a meditation piece about the light coming through.




Q: It feels like you’re an artist whose art is feeding itself, riffing off your own song …

A: You get a language, right? Maybe it takes you a couple decades, and then you stretch it in all directions. One of the dealers told me, “Just stop making those figures.” But that’s how the text pieces started. I started writing words that were part of my belief system. I started making marks, tens of thousands of them.


Q: You use the Watchers laid out like text. Do we get to know the original messages?


A: If I have a thought, or a spiritual belief or some hope for the future, that’s what I’m writing. But the words are mimicked in those figures. Every letter is represented by the same form. By the end, you no longer remember what the words were. Sometimes I put what the subject was on the back, but often I don’t. What that allows is, if you come to that same piece of wood, and you fit your own words into those spaces, there’s a tiny possibility that our words will be identical — that our beliefs will be the same.


Q: Can you talk about the pressure of having heavy industry breathing down your neck?


A: Well … they’re starting to listen to people like myself. We didn’t have to go to the degree of blowing anything up. During the Harper years we did have some special investigators come over to ask me for my DNA.


Q: I guess if they would allow you to choose what form it came in …

A: (Laughs) I did make a suggestion. But they didn’t get any.



Peter von Tiesenhausen — Ever Widening Rings

Where: Peter Robertson Gallery, 12323 104th Ave.

When: Opening reception: 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 12; show runs through Dec. 1

Admission: free