To understand why Alberta artist Peter von Tiesenhausen copyrighted the land that he and his wife own, it helps to look with his eyes out the window of the studio he built himself on their remote 800 acres northwest of Grande Prairie. The copyright was a novel legal maneuver to prevent the intrusion of a gas pipeline: The view provides the compelling rationale. Von Tiesenhausen looks across fields his father cleared as a homesteader in order to receive the title to the land—fields he spent his childhood riding through on horseback to check the family’s cattle for pink eye and hoof rot.

His eyes alight on the fence he began building 25 years ago when he decided to become an artist. After constructing the first eight feet of picket fence, he felt an internal shift. He’d made a commitment: “This would be something I would be doing for the rest of my life.” The rule he set for himself is simple: each year he is alive, the same materials—two-by-fours, one-by-fours, nails, a treated fence post, some white paint. Another eight feet.

“It’s this incredible shackle,” von Tiesenhausen acknowledges. He is tied to his land. But he also observes that at some point “a sense of stewardship kicked in.” He became even more keenly protective of the acres he has lived on since he was six years old.

So, in 1996, when the land negotiator and “some major dude” from Alliance Pipeline stopped by to discuss laying pipe to carry highly toxic gas through his property, von Tiesenhausen took them on a tour, pointing out objects he’d made and strategically placed, such as nests from willow branches perched in the trees. “This is not just a field or a forest,” he told them. “It’s an artwork. These things I’ve made are not isolated from the environment.”

The Lifeline fence is a prime example. The most recently completed end evokes the crisp white picket fence ideal of contented domesticity, but looking down the fence line, the paint begins to peel, the wood weathers, and finally the aspen trees push their way through, splitting the one-by-fours. “It’s very clear,” von Tiesenhausen says, “that that fence will not be there in one hundred years.”

Futility of “Ownership”

The fence, which does not actually fence anything in, is a powerful artistic statement about, among other things, the futility of ownership, a theme that resonates in the artist’s family history. Baltic Germans who settled in Estonia during the Crusades, von Tiesenhausen’s ancestors lost ownership of their land 700 years later during the Russian Revolution, and then had two weeks to vacate in the early days of World War II when the “nonaggression” pact between Hitler and Stalin assigned Estonia to the Soviet sphere of influence.

For von Tiesenhausen, whose first language was German and who wore lederhosen as a young Canadian lad, “the idea of being displaced people was always in my consciousness.” Despite understanding in a primal way how tenuous—even “ludicrous”—land ownership actually is, he nonetheless felt a strong urge to lay claim to the Alberta soil he’d grown up on, buying his first acres from his father when he was just 19. Or, to be precise, what he actually purchased, according to Canadian law, was the top six inches of the soil, to the depth of a plow.

“How can you own the sky?” von Tiesenhausen asks, with a nod to ancient cultures that found such a concept incomprehensible. Likewise, to copyright land, he acknowledges, is “absurd.” And yet he became willing to deal in such absurdities: If agribusinesscan copyright a seed, von Tiesenhausen figured he could copyright his acreage.

To the two pipeline ambassadors, he explained that altering the top six inches of his soil in any way—for example, by digging a trench to lay pipe—would constitute copyright infringement. They responded in the numerical language they knew, naming a really big number, ten times what they were offering other landowners in the area.

Von Tiesenhausen turned them down. Having a big pile of money on the table—and making the decision to walk away—was, he says, “one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had in my life: I know where I stand and what I truly believe in. I’ve been tested.”

He also credits his renewed confidence in his own integrity with kicking his career up a notch. Within a year and a half, he claims to have brought in the same amount from new sales and commissions that the pipeline reps had offered. And if another oil or gas company representative attempted an offer, he charged $500 an hour to evaluate the proposal, keeping any meetings blissfully short.

The Space between Human and Land

Originally a landscape painter trying to “describe the land,” von Tiesenhausen’s career evolved as he began making things in the land, which then led to trying to have “a relationship with any land I find myself in.” These days, that might mean going to an exhibition ten days beforehand with just his ax to make a work on-site or perhaps creating from detritus found nearby.

That focus—on exploring the relationship between human beings and the land—crystallized in the work for which he is most widely known, The Watchers, five eight-foot-tall figures he carved from spruce and then charred with fire. From 1997 to 2002, von Tiesenhausen transported these haunting iconic figures in the back of his Ford pickup on what became a 30,000-kilometer journey across Canada, the itinerary determined by lecture and commission invitations. The Watchers even traversed the Northwest Passage on a Coast Guard icebreaker, their impassive presence overlooking the frozen scenery from aboard the uppermost deck.

To drive along with “five charred guys in a truck” gave von Tiesenhausen a heightened appreciation for how he is being perceived—how, in other words, he fits into his environment. And photos documenting The Watchers’placement in urban and rural landscapes presents them as . . . well, watching, or perhaps watching over. Their forms raise questions about the human presence on the planet, which, paradoxically, photos of actual humans don’t necessarily evoke.

Land under Assault

Being closely aligned with the land also brings with it a heightened awareness of environmental threats, and on von Tiesenhausen’s northwestern Alberta property, those threats continue to loom large. The majestic grove of pine trees, under which he built his family’s house, was felled by the pine beetle scourge that is devastating pine forests across Alberta and neighboring British Columbia. The reason for the infestation? Many more of the tiny beetles survive the milder winters caused by global warming.

The need to use the timber before it rotted, the desire to revitalize the hamlet of 15 families where he lives, and the prospect of Canadian stimulus funding led von Tiesenhausen to take a four-year hiatus from formal art-making. Still, he describes the problems—the beetle-killed trees, rural decline, and economic collapse—in artistic terms, “as if they’re a palette with pigments.” The painting he hoped to create would be “the most sustainable community center anyone has ever seen”—and right in the middle of oil country no less, with giant tar sand pits just miles away and a natural-gas hot spot underfoot.

Initially turned down in no uncertain terms for stimulus funds, von Tiesenhausen eventually won over the government bureaucrats with a persistent email campaign showcasing bucolic photos of horses harvesting the beetle-kill pines. The Demmitt Community Centre opened in 2011 with a concert that packed 300 people (and turned another couple hundred away) into a timber frame hall constructed with straw bales, a recycled gym floor, and wood with the telltale blue tinge of pine beetle infestation.

The elegant building is eloquent testimony to von Tiesenhausen’s take on an artist’s job description—“making everything you do be part of that poetry of being alive.” That poetry has resonated with some unlikely converts, including the government workers who’d initially refused and then relented on the stimulus funding. They sent von Tiesenhausen a photo from their holiday party, their table centerpiece a gingerbread house replica of the sustainable community hall.

And then there’s the unsuccessful land negotiator from Alliance Pipeline. Von Tiesenhausen did eventually take some of his money. Even though the guy claimed not to even particularly like von Tiesenhausen’s work, he still had to have a piece of it. He forked over four figures for a mixed-media drawing that used the earth from von Tiesenhausen’s copyrighted land as pigment.

Jacqueline White is a Minneapolis writer. She is the daughter of the sculptor Nancy Metz White, whose monumental welded tree forms grace two Milwaukee parks.

Featured in Public Art Review #46.

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