A winter’s conversation with Peter Von Tiesenhausen

Written by Joanna Moen & Jim Stokes

A warm November chinook blew gently as Peter guided us through the sculpture garden and around his studio compound on his northern wilderness land. With evident pride, Peter showed us the charming timber frame straw bale cabin he and his two sons had hand built a few years earlier. We saw stacks of timber, weathered logs and wood which he described as the beginnings of future pieces. Next, a tour of his studio—a workspace cornucopia of tools, sundry and eclectic natural materials, wood and works-in-progress. Here we saw sculptures of negative-space, roughhewn from blocks of wood, where subtlety met with raw edges. Themes of natural and found materials weathering and aging abounded. We noted how an essential part of Peter’s works were forged from a variety of artistic interventions including the wielding of ax, torch, and hand cutting tools.

Later we viewed the eroded vestiges of The Ship, originally a 100 foot vessel made of woven willow trees and rocks from his property. Now the ship—weathered by sun, wind and the passage of time—has a ghost ship feel to it. The Ship continues to whisper of winds and rains, tempests and sun-drenched summer days—and the endless cycle of birth and death.ship

Beyond The Ship stood Peter’s Lifeline Fence. The fence is an ongoing piece, to which von Tiesenhausen adds a new section each year. It documents and reflects the chronology of his life to date. With each year’s new addition to Lifeline, the earlier, aging sections have weathered and begun to decay and fade back into the earth—bent and eroded by the passage of time. Peter spoke reflectively on the metaphor of the fence. Like his fence, he pensively spoke of how he—and indeed all of us—are aging, fading, and moving towards decay.

As we surveyed the expanse of his wilderness property, we were reminded of one of his boldest artist gestures. Several years ago, when oil and gas companies were attempting to use his land as a conduit for a pipeline, Peter resisted in various ways, including charging a high hourly artist fee for negotiations. Ultimately, he had his land legally copyrighted as a land art artwork as a preemptive protection against any further oil and gas exploration. This approach gained new traction, as it was widely shared on Facebook this past fall.

We moved indoors in front of the wood fire, where his life partner Teresa served us lemon walnut muffins and tea. In their cozy home, Peter and Teresa described recent developments in their lives and art.

During the past few years Peter has come back strong with three striking shows at Alberta galleries; following intensive involvement with building the sustainable and community-based Demmitt Hall.

Most recently, Peter’s show at the Peter Robertson Gallery in Edmonton, featured new processes including solar bronze casting. Created in a foundry in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, solar bronzing involves focusing the sun’s rays with mirrors, in order to melt the bronze in the creation of cast sculptures. The result has the quality of molten gold that has landed upon and exists within an underlying structure.

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Of late, video media is increasingly important in von Tiesenhausen’s work. In the Peter Robertson show, a video installation documenting his recent residency in Iceland runs continuously. It documents a figure rendering a chunk of glacial iceberg into a boat; in a context of the low howl of a bitter continuous Artic wind. As von Tiesenhausen described to Art of the Peace, the three metre block of glacial ice had washed ashore in Iceland. As Teresa filmed him in silhouette against the churning waves, the wind was so strong and loud, that he was unsure of what the ultimate result would be. But it was profoundly affecting. In this elegy of wind, light and glacial ice reflections, the viewer becomes one with the figure. This writer actually shivered and felt the wrath and desolation of the frozen Arctic wind. In another video installation in the Peter Robertson Gallery show, the use of a drone camera eerily surveys a patch of earth—as the perspective evolves and then devolves again in a slow, continuous cycle of movement.

Von Tiesenhausen was asked if he thought video installation pieces with their ongoing movement of images, would ever become a part of what individuals hang on their walls as art. He stated that he thought video art had the potential to create a meditative sense that may be unmatched in any other medium, as it can culminate in a transcendent visual experience.

Another striking piece in this recent show is Journey, a large whitewashed painting on a sheet of weathered found board, which describes his travels with the 5 Watchers. The Watchers were individual human-like sculptures, hewn and burnt into ethereal forms. Some years ago, with the Watchers secured in the box of his aging Ford pick-up, Peter travelled across Canada and up to northern East Coast regions. There, they were loaded onto the uppermost deck of an icebreaker, and sailed through the Northwest Passage. In Journey, hammered holes mark the route of the Watchers. Journey places the viewer in mind of 1940’s black and white travel movies; reminding one of stylized maps featuring turbo propeller airplanes travelling to exotic destinations. At the same time it evokes a sense of newly fallen snow on a quiet and expansive landscape.

As we chatted, we found Peter in a peaceful place of gratitude and humility. His work has always been a poignant reflection on his own life journey. His life has continuously been revealed through his work. Art and stories are one.

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As our conversation drew to a close, Peter reflected upon how his art is the ‘residue’ of an awe-filled life. In every aspect, the power and tenderness of nature has moved him to render these sensibilities into art. And on this day, and in this conversation, Peter found himself rooted in the present moment as he reflected upon the beauty and potential in his surroundings.

Returning from this brief visit with the von Tiesenhausen’s, Art of the Peace members reflected upon the richness of conversation and deep poetic well this artist continues to mine. Our immersion in the von Tiesenhausen world left us feeling peaceful and inspired.

And wondering what might come next from the world of Peter von Tiesenhausen.


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