Landmarks: Vessels, Taoists and Time

Peter von Tiesenhausen
By Jody Farrell

Peter von TiesenhausenAs Peter von Tiesenhausen leads a gaggle of visitors toward his studio, he pauses over the gravel-embedded, half-grass road and comments casually to his wife, Teresa, “This is new.”

He is looking down at a mess of bubbles, green, opaque and seriously seaworthy, that have formed amidst the stony wetness. It’s of mild interest to the Demmitt artist in a place where almost everything leaves him awestruck. A bumblebee foraging in the ground is the biggest he’s ever seen; a branch of berries, the reddest.

I’m still puzzling over the green ooze of thirty minutes past when we’re out in the field, contemplating his willow boats and their slow communion with the waves of elements that will eventually consume them. Inside the now-collapsed outline of the 110-foot-long ‘Ship’, Peter has planted spruce trees. Inside that, he’s placed rocks. Each outline will mark its predecessor’s shape as the more vulnerable shells erode over time. Long after the exquisitely woven, weather-beaten limbs sink beneath the tangles of grass, the successive vessel-outlines will give pause to that most persistent, natural course of events: Nature.

Just metres east of here, farmers and oil companies have cut a wide welcome into what looks more like Alberta. But on von Tiesenhausen’s land, minutes this side of the British Columbia border, the horizon has already announced a change. It’s wetter, greener, spongier ground than our familiar, suck-it-up prairie soil. It feels somewhat tentative underfoot. And, except for the field – once cleared by his family and onto which Peter brings and builds his willow sculptures – this land feels less solid, less permanent. I’m wondering if his woven vessels spring from a premonition of catastrophe.

von Tiesenhausen has already gone to battle to preserve his seemingly vulnerable land. His victory shielding it from advancing pipelines and corporate clearcut is well-documented, as was his wrath in early paintings entitled ‘Disturbing the Peace’. Today, however, von Tiesenhausen calls the show his “worst ever,” saying it’s wrong to pass judgement, especially given his own stint “scraping the earth” when he worked up north many years ago.

“There was a lot of fingerpointing; a lot of saying: I’m a painter, I’m smarter than you guys,” he recalls. Over the years, his conviction to let the land speak through him has quelled some of the anger. His resolve now is to let nature’s message, not his, become more present in the face of destruction. The act requires that he become a channel, a vessel, for whatever the land needs to say.

The self-admitted egoist finds it a tough gig at times. “I like to play God. I love making something of nothing.” But he’s given over to letting the land do the talking, and recording these passages without drawing conclusions, without shaking a finger.

von Tiesenhausen's ‘Vessel' still stands in his field, while the larger ‘Ship' lays collapsed behind it.The conversation between artist and earth started in 1991 when he built a willow branch fence shortly after the birth of the first of two sons. More structures followed: ‘Tree Pods’ (1992); a-hundred-and- ten-foot-long ‘Ship’ (1993), and ‘Tower’ (1994.) While the willow sculptures seemed repeatedly to take the form of a shelter or vessel of sorts, von Tiesenhausen claims they were just his way of talking with the land, sensitizing himself to its word.

He began to approach every exhibition, however far away, with this sensitivity to the space and materials available to him. In 1995, he dug an enormous trench out of the red soil he found near Poitiers, France, and filled it with white sand from the sea. The idea of going into places “carte blanche” and letting them say what they had to say grew more appealing, and he repeated the exercise in Banff, Emma Lake, Kelowna, and Ottawa.

The artist with son Alex, 11, is still awed by ‘Forest Figure' sculpted from a 386- year-old spruce.In February, 2004, von Tiesenhausen was given a bale of photo paper while touring Peace River’s Daishowa-Marubeni pulp mill and turned out 230 single paintings of aspens, the tree used in the pro- duct. The paintings themselves were done in brush work much likea Japanese-style calligraphy using aspen ashes from the mill. The whole process became something of a transcendent, mark-making meditation, he says. The resulting installation resembled a Japanese shrine, with its walls of paper, particularly delicate given the vulnerability of the ash. The paintings will not last, as is the case with all his work. As is the case with nature.

Blind FaithA similar approach to a ‘site-specific’ installation at Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery tested von Tiesenhausen’s resolve to just let the environment have its say. Without a clue as to what he would use for his exhibition, von Tiesenhausen trusted his gut. With the actual show just days away and no material with which to build yet, he still chose to finish a little ditty Teresa had given him called ‘The Tao of Pooh.’ The Benjamin Hoff book makes a winning case for Winnie-the-Pooh as Western Taoist master, and von Tiesenhausen allowed himself to read it rather than worry over the fact that he’d yet to receive any message from his surroundings. He finished the book with further resolve to do what Hoff said Pooh does well: To be. To live in the moment. Not fret, like Eeyore; not pontificate, like Owl. He heard a noise, walked outside, and found workmen loading up scraps of rusted, woven infrastructure from the University of Saskatchewan’s Convocation Hall. He used the materials to recreate four ‘Tower’-like structures for his ‘Blind Faith’ installation. The U of S recently called von Tiesenhausen about its purchase. Plans are to house it in the new convocation hall.

von Tiesenhausen has taken up painting again too. He’d given it up for years he says, because it couldn’t say as much as his installation pieces did. But today’s paintings appear to hold messages deep within their textured layers. They’re hauntingly rich, and feature gaping mouths and tunnelling dark holes. They’re scary as well as beautiful. And while he’s not sure yet what they’re about, von Tiesenhausen says he feels most alive when he gets out of his way and paints unconsciously. It’s a Taoist notion that it’s when we’re least present that we are happiest and most real. Now it’s a matter of sitting back and watching, through the artist, just what the land is trying to say.

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