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July-August 2008

An Alberta sculptor fights oil companies to exhibit art on his own land

Amy FungWebsite

Peter von Tiesenhausen

Peter von Tiesenhausen with one of his sculptures. Photo courtesy the artist

As you walk through Peter von Tiesenhausen’s land, artwork emerges as if summoned from the ground up. Ships and nests made of willow branches appear along well-worn paths. Statues carved from logs stand watch from between the trees. In Tiesenhausen’s studio, small canvases that resemble the cracked earth of recent droughts are propped across the window sill and sketches of aspen trees (drawn with aspen ash onto aspen pulp paper) hang along the wall.

Philosophically and aesthetically, it’s clear that the landscape and the art are inseparable, and since 1997, the Alberta visual artist has pursued this argument legally as well, taking the unprecedented step of copyrighting his land as a work of art.

Tiesenhausen made the decision after years of legal battles with oil and gas companies that wanted access to the deposits of natural gas that sit just beneath his 800-acre plot of land. Under federal law, Alberta landowners have the rights only to the surface of their land. The riches that lie beneath are generally owned by the government, which can grant oil and gas producers access so long as the companies agree to compensate landowners. This compensation is usually for lost harvests and inconvenience, but, Tiesenhausen reasoned, what if instead of a field of crops these companies were destroying the life’s work of an acclaimed visual artist? Wouldn’t the compensation have to be exponentially higher?

“I’m not trying to get money for my land, I’m just trying to relate to these companies on their level,” says Tiesenhausen from his home near Demmitt, Alberta. “Once I started charging $500 an hour for oil companies to come talk to me, the meetings got shorter and few and far between.”

Tiesenhausen is in a unique position to understand both the realities of industry and the value of the natural world. As a young boy working on the family ranch, his daily job of surveying the cattle left him with an intimate understanding of the family’s land. He left school at 17 to work in the oil fields and eventually found himself in the Yukon in the early ’80s, digging away at surface gold mines. Before he committed to being a full-time artist in 1990, he worked crushing boulders in Antarctica while building an airstrip through the permafrost.

Today, Tiesenhausen is an artist, an active member of his community and a somewhat reluctant environmental icon. “I’m just a guy that likes to have an exciting life,” he says earnestly. “I went to the gold fields, worked in Antarctica, but what I found was that staying at home and making art was the most exciting my life ever got.”

In 2003, he presented his copyright argument before the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, which told him that copyright law was beyond its jurisdiction and he would need to pursue that in the courts. So far that hasn’t been necessary. The oil and gas companies have since backed off, even paying for an expensive rerouting of pipelines, and have yet to bother testing his copyright.

This fall, Tiesenhausen will get a chance to comment on the oil industry through his art, rather than the law. He’s been invited to the Gallery Lambton in Sarnia, Ontario, to create a yet-to-be specified new work in response to the 150th anniversary of North America’s first commercial oil well.

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