Peter Von Tiesenhausen 

PETER VON TIESENHAUSEN, 1981, PAINTING
ALUMNI DISCOVERY INITIATIVE INTERVIEW BY VANESSA NELSON 

VANESSA NELSON: When did you graduate ACAD, what was your major? Did you continue working in this area or did you change your area of interest?

PETER VON TIESENHAUSEN: I was at ACA in 1979 and 1981. Painting was my major. And I never graduated. So, basically I have second year art school. I stopped attending full-time in 1981 and in 1990 I became a full-time artist, a painter initially. And slowly that changed. Eventually I became more of a sculptor and installation artist and who knows what I do now, I work with installation, video, collaborating with dancers, set design of some sort, even performative aspects, I think I’ve explored virtually every discipline.

NELSON: Do you ever broadly think of what you do as painting?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: Yeah, in a way I think it’s still painting. I think everything is drawing and painting in a way… even altering the landscape, it’s like brush strokes right? Where you make a pathway, a ski trail, you’re kind of drawing and seeing it as a big picture, only now it’s three dimensional space. For me, the land has actually become the primary and ongoing artwork. Not necessary how we think of public art, it’s not putting sculptures in or modifying it as a park, or anything like that. Rather I wonder ‘how do I move through this landscape, how do I create journeys on this piece of land and punctuation points which are the buildings and the stopping points.’ What I’m wondering about is what does it feel like from above, what does it feel like in different seasons. Starting to get a sensibility for that, just as you would with acrylic or oil paint. Editing by taking trees out in certain areas, and letting trees grow back in others. I guess I’ve been thinking more in those terms.

NELSON: There were whispers that even though you quit going to ACAD formally you may have remained there in some capacity…

VON TIESENHAUSEN: Yes, rumours have it and some of those rumours border on truth, that I actually quit art school and I just kind of hung around and opted into a few classes here and there for a period of time. I don’t remember how long I was there. I had a studio downtown in the old Burns Building, and there too, I was not allowed to live there but I may have – for a period of time. But at ACA I would during the day just pop into some classes. So it would be a different class every day or every few days. I was one of the more engaged participants so the teachers seemed to be pleased to have me in the room. Because I was really excited about the opportunity. It was without marks, or grading; it was just this opportunity to be in the space, and be engaged in a way, not necessarily interested in the end result. It was just engagement in the moment.

NELSON: A lot of graduates use ACAD as a stepping stone. What was the value of ACAD and how did you see that carrying through into your career?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: The value of ACA was that it opened up my mind. ACA took this farm kid with very conservative perspectives on art and society, and expanded his worldview significantly. It was a crucial time and place for my development. I was exposed to fantastic people and influences, for example, Frank Vervoort my painting teacher in my second year. He was a mentor that opened huge doors for me just by opening my mind. I went in one semester from being a person who was quite guarded against any kind of different way of looking at the world, and under his guidance, I like to think, I became one of the more experimental ones and definitely more open than I could have imagined myself being… and it has never closed. He was largely responsible for that.

In many ways he was a more traditional painter, however, he was one of the most inspiring teachers for me, regarding the world and art. He was aware of stuff all over the world. That’s what drew me to Frank. I thought classical art was the way to go, I thought in terms of representational/realism and impressionist/landscape painting. But he knew of many other painters and introduced us to them, Mark Rothko for one. He influenced me to open my eyes and to know I could form my own opinion. I didn’t have to go with what I already thought I knew.

NELSON: What would you like to be recognized for?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: I don’t really care that I am recognized necessarily… what’s important to me is that I’ve lived a genuine existence, and that I’m pursuing things because they are of interest to me and because they are worthy of being pursued. To be an inspiration to others, that they too should follow their own bliss, in the words of Joseph Campbell. If I could inspire people to follow their own muse, and find that things usually work out when they do.

This idea that we want to be recognized for something, it’s so ego driven, I don’t agree with that. As much as I enjoy having my ego stroked like anyone else, it’s such bullshit. So to be recognized for something is actually a very superficial way of looking at the world… that’s what fame is to a degree, one person could idealize you and the next could demonize you, and yet they are both wrong.

I would like to influence people to engage with the world on a deeper level, to have the most meaningful lives. If the end result of my being here on this planet means that somebody else has engaged with life on a deeper level, and to perhaps leave less residue of negative measure on the planet, well that’s the best I could hope for.

NELSON: Given your experiences, what advice would you give a student when it comes to establishing a creative business?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: Make the work for the right reasons – start with that. Make lots of it. And then once you’ve made lots of it, start to look through it. What work is stronger than other work? Not everything we make is all good. Purify it, and eliminate some. Keep editing.

Then look at your work and let the work lead you. Once you have a body of work, and you’ve produced lots of it – and hopefully you aren’t just repeating yourself, then it’s important to let people who might be interested know it exists. Getting the word out that it exists is a part of doing business, selling it and believing in its value is also an aspect of that. I found that a lot of people these days are interested in becoming famous immediately. Fame is incredibly unrewarding. You might be famous one day and despised the next. The real reward is in the making of the work. That’s the journey. It’s in the making. Anything that happens outside of the work is bonus – it’s gravy. To focus on fame or finances, I think is the wrong measuring stick.

And get excited about what you’re doing. It’s not a ladder to climb or a job, it’s a personal journey. Art is a process of enlightenment. Somebody once said the best art is made for an audience of one. And I truly believe that. If it’s engaging to you, it’ll be engaging to someone else. The more truthful it is to you, the more truthful it is for someone else.

NELSON: What insights did your years at ACAD give you when looking at things?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: Other than that I loved what I was doing and I loved having that much time to focus on the making of work, the majority of the insights may have come after, but the process started at ACAD. The experience at ACAD greatly expanded my narrow view of the world. I built relationships with people. Some of whom I’m still in touch with.

But after ACAD I needed to keep expanding. Again I had to get out from underneath art school and find my voice. That takes a while, to distance yourself from an instructor who knows more than you. I had to realize that my seemingly simplistic and immature view of the world had validity; my ideas and perspectives are just as valid as another’s. If you’re really honest with what you know, and you try to be honest about who you are, then you will have a unique view of the world. And if you can convey that unique view of the world through your art, likely, someone else will relate to it. Trying to figure out who you are is what ACAD started to be all about. It was a beginning.

NELSON: After graduation, what obstacles did you encounter and how did you overcome them?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: Apart from finding the physical space and time to make the work… the biggest obstacles you encounter are doubt, fear and this endless search for security. And so I found that the more I went along my path, the more that confidence would be there, and then the right things started to happen. Things start to move in a direction where you feel confident that your work will continue to provide you with opportunities. Trust is built when this happens.

Having the confidence to make the work. It doesn’t necessarily come right away. It’s the doing of the first projects that lead you to the next projects, and more importantly to the projects that will sustain you and be meaningful. And you start to find more meaning as you go on. The biggest obstacles were remaining motivated and believing in the process and at some point getting out from underneath the teachings of ACAD and finding my own voice. Eventually I did come to my own voice. You have to get to the very center of yourself and be as honest as possible. It should feel deeply right. And from there you make work. I don’t know why I wanted to build a ship in my yard. But the compulsion was pretty strong. I was finding my own voice and breaking new ground in my work. Same as the day that I started that picket fence. I realized I was embarking on my own journey finally. Up until then it had been influences and derivative work. The only way to find your voice is to produce, and reflect.     

NELSON: What do you feel is the role of ACAD and our alumni in shaping our cultural and economic prosperity?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: ACAD was a huge addition to this province, its presence isn’t just economics or providing infrastructure. A country or a city needs culture, so that we can have a reason to be alive. Otherwise, we’re just waking up, making money, spending it and going back to sleep. Art colleges have the potential to embrace creativity and celebrate diversity. So I still think the best thing they can do is perform their function with integrity, hire the best quality instructors. The quality of instruction can’t be compromised for more coin.

I think it’s incredibly important to keep exhibition spaces. As a student I saw some amazing international shows at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery (IKG), these shows changed my perspective. ACAD is producing a lot of graduates, they should then provide a place to show. Years after leaving ACAD I was given a show at the IKG that was pivotal for me. It was like a graduation piece, a chance to show what my work had become due in great part to what ACAD had given me years earlier.

NELSON: Why do you think that creativity matters in the big picture?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: Creativity is creation. Without creation, we have nothing. To me, creativity dwells in each and every one of us. Humans have a unique ability to choose, to consider different points of view. Without creativity, can you imagine what we would have? We’d have a bland, monochromatic reality. Without creativity we’re like our previous Prime Minister, with only a monetary view and without a greater imagination for the country. I’m sure there’s more to life than a pocket full of money; I’m sure there’s more to life than spreadsheets, much more than inputs and outputs. What we need to do is build on potential instead of hemming it in with limitations.

Take creativity out of the world and there’s no reason to exist. Nature is constantly creative, constantly reinventing itself in an attempt to diversify. And that’s what creativity is, it’s about diversification. It’s about potential and about vibrant growth. Creativity provides alternatives to the status quo. It can be exercised in art but in so many ways in just the way we live our lives.

NELSON: Where does art fit into your future?

VON TIESENHAUSEN: I don’t really see a separation between art and living anymore.