Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why the art of Peter von Tiesenhausen matters to me

The Ship
Peter von Tiesenhausen's art has changed the way I see the world by opening my mind to see everything around us as a large every changing spiritual connection between humans and nature.   Peter is not so much an artist as a person who lives within his art as an integral piece of it.

I was first introduced to the start of Peter's art in the early 1970s.   This introduction came at my parents dining room table in Tsawwassen.  My mother was talking with my father about what he should give to his Godson Peter for Christmas and she insisted it should be a set of good quality oil paints.   They ended up buying this for him at the Roof House Gallery in Point Roberts.

I first saw a painting by Peter  around New Year's in the later 1970s.  We were visiting the von Tiesenhausen's at their homestead in Demmitt Alberta.  As a third cousin, Peter's father was my father's closest relative in North America.   Peter showed my father a small landscape which looked like the Peace country in the late summer.   My father smiled, which for him was great praise.

Demmitt Alberta and the whole Peace Country has a lot of similarities to the landscape my father grew up in Estonia.   I never asked my father why we would often visit in the middle of the winter, but we did.  I have to wonder if it was because for my father it was a chance to be back in the world of Schulmann family estate Limmat that he had to leave at age 17 in 1939.  It may have been because the von Tiesenhausen's were creating farm from the wilderness in the 60s and 70s and my father liked to see the change over time.

Peter's early landscape I think spoke very deeply to the place that was the home of my father's soul.

For art to matter it has to have some sense of wonder, it has to make you think, it has to have an emotional connection for you, it has to matter to your soul.   I have seen a lot of well known art.  I learned how to look at an art work and try to connect and understand it.   When I was at university I would often go to Vancouver on Tuesdays because this was the free admission day at the Vancouver Art Gallery.    When I lived in London I went to the Tate Gallery more than any other place I can think of because of the art.  

In an art gallery I try to sit quietly in a room for an hour or more and see what comes of it - almost a Quakerly Meeting for Worship type of process.   I have really tried to understand and seek meaning or purpose in contemporary art but I found little genius.  I rarely seen anything that spoke to my soul.

The galleries are sterile, they are about preserving the art works and celebrating the famous artists.  I would look at a Rothko and could see that over time the painting had changed because of slow decay of the materials involved but that is not what the gallery wants.  Paintings are cleaned, restored and otherwise conserved in a stasis.   I started to pay more attention to the people in the galleries and saw that people came to "collect" the art, they walked through quickly and could then say they saw a Picasso or a Turner.   The name of the dead artist and the fact they had seen the work of art mattered more to them than anything.  They were soulless art spotters.

Over the years I had seen many paintings or sculptures that were beautiful but very few that pushed me to really think and contemplate, very few that touched my soul.   Then one day I saw a sculpture that instantly spoke to me on a thousand levels or more.

In 1996 at the Lillooet Public Library I saw a picture of a sculpture in hay field.   It was of a longboat made of branches from the woods around it.   It was not at a gallery or in front of some corporate headquarters but in the field of a working farm.   It was also weathered, it was clear to me the moment that I saw it had a finite lifespan and that nature would take it back.   This sculpture would never be restored or conserved.  The sculpture came from nature and would go back to nature.   I then saw the name of the sculptor, Peter von Tiesenhausen, and I knew I had walked on this field as a child.

Starting in the 90s Peter's work has been all related to people, the land, nature, decay, transition, and change.  His art is not static, his art is not gallery material.  His art is the best I have seen in connecting the power of nature and the ages with human creation.   With most art, and how we deal with it, it is about humans trying to stop change from happening, Peter's work is the opposite.

His work is not intellectual naval gazing that so many contemporary artists seem to want to do.  Too often when I go into a gallery I see artists trying to "clever" or obscure in a way to exclude those that are not part of the "in crowd"and if you do not "get it" you are not part of the art club.   There is no need to have an advanced degree in art history to see deep meaning and purpose in Peter's work.  His work is not cynical or ironic, there is nothing jaded about it.   It is not meaningless pretty or a clever graphic design.  It is not created to shock for the sake of reaction and nothing else.   His work is transcendent, honest, playful and deeply spiritual.

Peter's work is spiritual on the deepest level possible for art because it embraces that relationship between humans and the natural world at the most fundamental level.   All spirituality comes from the need of every  human society to make sense of the world around us.  Peter's art speaks to the very core of this and how all human creations are ephemeral and are changed over time by the forces of the natural world around us.

Peter with Alex and one his charred figures
Looking at, or more often thinking about, Peter's work becomes a very deeply worshipful process for me.  His art has allowed to me to look out a window and see a tree a pruned years ago as part of the creative interaction between humans and nature.   I can go for a walk and see the remains of an old building being swallowed by blackberries and contemplate the relationship of human creation and how the natural world is taking it back.

Vessel/Enclosure at the Banff Centre
Some of his works of art like Duration in Calgary he has created knowing their lifespan will be for millenia.  Others like Vessel/Enclosure at the Banff Centre are much shorter.    Some of his art is created just by him living his life on his farm.  The fence he has been building for 24 years, where the end he is working on is new and the other end is rotting away, takes a simple task many of us have done and attachs a sense of human history, meditation and inevitability of change to the task.   For Peter being present in the place where he is makes the art.

Quaker's believe there is that of God in everyone and that your whole life is in someway part of your worship.  Peter, while not being a Quaker, has done a brilliant job of showing how art, nature, everyday human activity, time and spirituality can all be part of a meaningful ongoing daily process of worship.

Peter's work matters to me so much because it has liberated me from the sterile world of the art gallery and opened my mind to a concept of art that is directly tied to my soul and the world I live in.

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