Keeping an eye on 'The Watchers'

Friday, June 14, 2002

DAWSON, Yukon Territory

From the cliffs of Newfoundland, from the stern of a coast guard cutter or from the back of a rickety pickup, "The Watchers" looked ever upward, provoking questions about what they see.

And, as he traveled through Canada with his offbeat artistic project, Peter von Tiesenhausen, who carved the five oversized human figures out of native spruce, was often asked: What does it mean?

"It's up to you. What do you think it means? I'm just driving around," was the answer he gave during a five-year, 21,000-mile journey in the blue, 1984 Ford F150 that broke down everywhere from southern border towns to Yukon's mountains.

The roaming exhibit, which ended in April, is the latest expression in an odyssey of abstract creation that makes von Tiesenhausen (pronounced TEE-zen-hows-en) one of the more distinct Canadian artists around.

Tall and ruggedly handsome, with deep-set blue eyes above crinkles from a frequent smile, he explains his work in a simple, sometimes self-deprecating manner punctuated with nods of the head and "eh?"

Art and beauty are everywhere, if you just look, he said during a stop in Dawson with "The Watchers." His work, which often uses natural materials, reflects that notion: Ice on a pond becomes opaque panes in a frozen wall, and tree stumps get carved by chain saw and charred into symbols of humanity.

"He has a kind of democratic sense of what art can be," says Clint Roenisch, the director-curator of the Monte Clark Gallery in Toronto. "He likes to leave behind the modernist white cube and take his projects into the street and make it happen with very pedestrian materials."

Von Tiesenhausen, 43, explained a decade of work that began on the family farm in northern Alberta and has spread across Canada and beyond by talking about "all these little things around you that you never knew existed."

An oil painter who specialized in landscapes, he developed an urge for more three-dimensional expression and found what he needed right at his feet. Willow branches he had bent around fixed posts became a fence, and more.

"Somehow that was art," he said of a concept that produced boats given a floating, ghost-ship quality from the transparent nature of the stick construction and a 45-foot hollow tower in which "you could meditate ... and watch the clouds go by."

Inspiration arrives impulsively, emanating from what is available. Charred spruce balls get rolled across paper to leave a unique pattern based on their grain. In Germany, the artist once cut his silhouette into the side of a huge hollow log, then set it upright in the ground and built a fire inside on the summer solstice in 1996. The result was a "man of fire" shining in the darkness.

An exhibit at the Keyano College Art Gallery in Fort McMurray, Alberta, was put together in four days, using discarded oil processing material from a junkyard that he suspended to form floating, wispy images that took different shapes from different perspectives.

Then there are "The Watchers," the charred, wooden statues that stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the back of his truck, heads tilted up to contemplate the heavens or the unknown or ... well, you figure it out.

They got their name from a Micmac Indian elder on the Eskasoni Reserve in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, who saw them in von Tiesenhausen's truck and remarked: "The watchers are here."

To von Tiesenhausen, their searching gaze from eyeless heads tilted slightly upward gives them a "not-defeated" look that provokes natural curiosity.

He had them outside on his 700-acre farm. "Elk would rub against them and knock them over," he said.

Driving them across the country often provoked angry questions from people on the street, wondering what he was doing.

"Everyone recognizes it as human," he said. "It's not about the quality of the carving or anything like that. It's more about the odyssey and the journey."

Roenisch said the inherent mystery of the project -- with people seeing "The Watchers" moving through their town in the back of an old, unmarked pickup -- was almost like "inventing a kind of contemporary myth."

"He would just come in and appear and cause head-turning and wonder," Roenisch said. There was no marketing in the art world, just the constant travel down Canadian roads.

"I think that was part of the point. He makes very little reference to himself in his travels," said Roenisch, who called the trait "quite Canadian."

During their journey, "The Watchers" stood on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, then boarded the Coast Guard ship Henry Larsen in von Tiesenhausen's bid to send them through the Northwest Passage. Told that was impossible, he thought they were going to ply the waters around Greenland until the Henry Larsen got new orders to head to the Western Arctic, by way of the Northwest Passage.

Von Tiesenhausen met them at the end of that journey in Tuktoyaktuk, on the Beaufort Sea near Alaska. They went back into the pickup, again attracting strange looks on the trip south to the farm to join the willow-branch ships, carved logs and other art works sprinkled throughout his property.

He once prevented an oil company from running a pipeline across the farm by arguing it would be a copyright infringement because the property itself was a work of art.

Roenisch called it a landmark case, while von Tiesenhausen, in his understated Canadian way, remarked: "I think there's some power in art."

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