Righting the Land: An Interview with Peter von Tiesenhausen

Peter von Tiesenhausen: Demmitt Community Centre

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Alberta’s Peace Country has experienced major changes to the landscape over the past 70 years, including the rise of farming, forestry, and oil extraction. Settler artist Peter von Tiesenhausen’s life and art have been shaped by, and speak to, all these forces. In 1995, he claimed copyright of the farmland on which he has lived nearly his whole life, protecting it as a work of art from oil and gas interests. Von Tiesenhausen was already internationally known, but this act caught everyone’s attention and was widely publicized.

I first encountered Peter von Tiesenhausen’s art in Grande Prairie in 2007. I was there for a Writers Guild of Alberta conference themed Writing / Righting the Land, and, auspiciously, I noticed one of his works hanging in the bed and breakfast where I was staying. Then in fall 2015, I had the opportunity to meet the artist himself at the launch of his exhibit Ever-Widening Rings in Edmonton. The exhibit offered subtle but powerful commentary on our relationship with the land. As with much of Von Tiesenhausen’s art, it offered recurring images of objects with morphological similarity ­– human figures, fence posts, trees, nails – often against a natural background, making clear Von Tiesenhausen sees a place for people in nature, and the need for us to care for the land as our homeplace. But the state of the materials – charred wood, pulp, ash, black and white photos – suggest a tension between presence and absence, traces and impermanence. Temporality is also suggested by another recurring image: wooden boats, which appear in many forms in his work, including as installation pieces on his own land.

Peter von Tiesenhausen, "Ship"
Peter von Tiesenhausen: Ship

We spoke briefly, and I realized it is ironic that Von Tiensenhausen had to copyright his land in order to protect it, as all of his art seems to resist the idea of permanent ownership – of the land and of art. He says he “borrows from the land,” which he considers “sacred,” and “gives back to it.” This exhibit brought me right back to that 2007 conference, and to my sense at the time (and now) that “righting the land” actually means righting us; that is, righting our perspective – recognizing that we are part of the land, not objective observers separate from it. Such a perspective seems rare in academia, where it is often assumed that the job of scholars, including writers and artists and scientists, is to simply record the changes happening, without directly acting. I feel increasingly impatient with this stance, and I think it has led to our anthropocentric problems in the first place. Recognizing we are part of the land, intimately related to it, means loving it: paying close attention to it, respecting it, standing up for it, taking inspiration from it, healing it. Von Tiesenhausen’s art reflected for me the observation, care, courage, creativity, and humility wrapped up in such a perspective. I decided to write an academic paper on land ethics, and as part of my research I did a phone interview with von Tiesenhausen, in which we talked about his art and the land, and my own recent arrest for protesting the demolition of a footbridge and adjacent forest in Edmonton. Here is a condensed version of that interview.

KK: How has the land influenced your art?

PVT: I grew up within a mile of where I live now; I always knew this land. Even as a little kid, I had a keen interest in what I was surrounded by. I observed it. If I had grown up somewhere else, maybe it would have been a different connection. I started smoking really early (six or seven years old) and you’d have to go and hide, of course. I don’t know what was more compelling: sitting quietly in the bush, or the tobacco. I just enjoyed what I was doing. That was my first conscious relationship of just sitting and watching the land and not doing anything.

I also had horses. I was 14 when I bought my first horse. My job was to watch the cattle; that meant riding through the bush. That’s how I really got to know this land. When you spend time with something and realize it is the one thing you understand better than anything else, there is some kind of bond that happens, and you feel responsible for it – even if it has its own life, and its own cycles, and you have to mitigate the acts that are done by insensitive humans.

I knew the bush the way it was before it was cleared. My dad was a farmer trying to make a go of it on marginal land. He provided a livelihood for our family and [the clearing of the trees meant] I was able to get my education. I realize this now as a 57 year-old man; he was 67 when he died, and I’m getting a perspective on these things now. I try to keep open the land he cleared. I also realize that some of the clearcuts are now pretty vibrant forest. I’ve let go of some of the battles I fought for years, as I see that nature is pretty resilient and will get rid of us if it needs to.

The things I have been able to fight successfully were only in my tiny little realm – I never did stop a pipeline; I just made sure it skirted the land I had the deed for. I had heard about Douglas Cardinal trying to copyright his church in Red Deer a couple of years before; then when I was backed into a corner, it popped into my mind. I just claimed copyright. I own the top six inches and it is my artwork. I remember these pipeline negotiators looking at each other and going, can you do this? And I thought, I don’t know, but I’m going to try. They offered us more money. It was a challenge for a broke artist. But my wife said, you do what you’ve got to do. And I said, this has never been about money and never will be, and told them, you’re not allowed to come across. I thought, if no one considers their land as sacred, then at least I have to do so. This is the place that has nurtured me since I was a baby, and has given me everything I’ve ever needed.

I consider what I do as farming, in that I collect things on the land and then sell them. When my father asked me to join him in farming, I was 24. At the time I said, dad, I’m not a farmer. And I got on a bus and never saw him again. He died picking rocks. You could beat yourself up forever about that. Now it turns out I’m a damn farmer anyway. If either one of us had known, and that I’m still living on the land….

My dad totally supported my practice, but said you’re never going to make a living at it; let’s be realistic. You need something to fall back on. There was no precedent for it, especially in this area. [Eventually] I realized what I wanted to be and what I didn’t want to be. And I set the parameters for how I wanted my art life to go.

I’m not even sure I’m an artist, except that I make things, and people buy them and call them art. I just know that when I make something, it needs to be made. And then sometimes someone says, hey I want that. And sometimes I refuse to sell it because I want it. And sometimes I sell it later.

Peter von Tiesenhausen, "Map"
Peter von Tiesenhausen: Map

KK: Do you feel a responsibility to speak on behalf of the land in a public way?

PVT: Eight or nine years ago, I had a successful public art project. I’d made some money, and thought, what am I going to do now? And then a few weeks later, we received word that there was an emergency in Demmitt. So my wife and I went. The local non-profit had gone defunct, and the community hall was falling apart, and there was zero interest. And I thought, this is it. This is my next project. We need to build the most amazing community center anyone’s ever seen. We used local pine-beetle lumber, and composting toilets, and straw bales. Next month we’re putting in solar panels. It is beautiful and hyper-efficient. And it’s being utilized. Things even in the most unlikely places can change. The thing is, if we believe in it, and are willing to go the extra 50 miles, then it will happen. Everything is impossible until it’s not.

Peter von Tiesenhausen: Demmitt Community Centre
Peter von Tiesenhausen: Demmitt Community Centre

I love the footbridge. We might lose these things, and we can’t be heartbroken for what we lose. But we have to fight for it. Keep doing what feels right. If you love what you do, you’re on the right track. The next thing is, love the world. Ask yourself, what power do I have in my realm of influence to change things for the better? And if it doesn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. Forgive yourself and carry on. It’s not all up to you. And focus on the next thing. It has to be for love, not obligation. Once you’ve embarked on it, you have to finish it. But if it ends up no one takes over after that, it’s not your fault. Build it in a way that it can weather a few storms.

This, I’d say, is righting the land.

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Kristine Kowalchuk

Kristine Kowalchuk is a writer living in Edmonton. She completed her PhD in English at the University of Alberta in 2012. Her research focuses on food, the environment, and land-use writing; her first book, Preserving on Paper: Seventeenth-Century Englishwomen’s Receipt Books is forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press this May. She teaches at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

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