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Things I Knew To Be True: Meditation as modern-day transcription

April 1, 2021

Things I Knew To Be True by Peter von Tiesenhausen. Photo: Laughing Dog Photography.

Things I Knew To Be True has been a 20 year meditation for artist Peter von Tiesenhausen. To say the sculpture is impressive would be an understatement. Made up of 822 individual pieces, not including the 4,000 hand-cut-and-welded wall mounts, it is affixed to the wall of the Stanley A. Milner Library in the shape of a 28-foot-tall paragraph. The catch is, Peter’s sentences are not written in traditional words. They take the shape of abstract human figures, all conforming to the same basic structure, but with entirely different meanings.

Peter von Tiesenhausen began this project two decades ago when performing the unceremonious task of ripping up old floorboards. As he worked, he discovered unique grooves in the undersides of the boards and began to char and whitewash them. Noticing how the paint chipped in irregular ways, Peter started to carve his thoughts into the boards. 

What is it I want to say today? I’d think, and then I’d take maybe an hour to scratch in two or three sentences, accounting for spelling mistakes, and trying to remember what the sentence actually was,” Peter recalls. There was no reference, it was a meditation.” 

Peter has lived within a mile of his current residence in Northern Alberta for most of his life. It’s as if the land has carved itself into him as well. The forest surrounding his property was devastated by a fire around 1907, and he has had the opportunity to watch it grow.

Part of my job as an artist is to observe, and I was seeing so many changes to the landscape. Nature blossoms and diversifies on its own. You have no choice but to cherish the richness,” says Peter. The migration from paintings to sculpture became a conversation with the land, expanding his observations. Paintings are distanced — a moment in time — whereas sculpture are more of an interaction. 

Art has always been a big player in Peter’s life. At an early age, he remembers visiting family friends and bringing over a pencil and paper. It seemed like magic to me to watch them create something out of nothing.” Growing up, Peter worked as a gold miner, an oilfield worker, and on an airstrip for the British Government in Antarctica. It was on a boat trip from Antarctica to South America that he met Joe Farman, one of the scientists who discovered the hole in the ozone layer. Keep in mind, this was the 1990’s, and I wasn’t necessarily aware of any of this. We had two weeks to discuss CFC’s and the like. It became so clear just how finite the world was and that this could all come to a head within my lifetime. It was impossible not to notice the damage being done.” Peter quit his job in Antarctica at the age of thirty and committed himself to being a full-time artist, fulfilling a long-standing goal. While making impactful art with the least environmental impact has been largely in focus throughout his 32 year career. Peter posits, Maybe it’s not my job to tell people what to think, but to make the most powerful art I can, in evocative ways, so people can think on their own. Maybe I can make something that will encourage engagement the way I was engaged.”

When the commission for the Stanley A. Milner Library was proposed, Teresa —Peter’s partner — suggested that he submit the text project”. Thus began the production of Things I Knew To Be True. Peter hired his sons and constructed a separate building on his land, purpose-built for this sculpture. Standing by his mandate of how to create art in the least impactful way, he installed 32 solar panels, generating ten kilowatts (10,000 watts) of solar power to fuel the necessary machinery, which now also sustains his house and car. The whole thing keeps growing into the next step. It came to fruition because of this project and managed to help us step up to a different way of living, which is now less impactful to the planet,” says Peter. 

Things I Knew To Be True then took the form of a modern-day transcription. The original charred boards were photographed, photoshopped, and projected onto discarded steel sheets Peter had collected from a fracking company. I freehanded my words onto the rusty steel with chalk. I did actually consider getting a tetanus shot afterwards,” he chuckles. From the earliest etchings from Peter’s mind, to one of his son’s skills with a plasma cutter, the words took shape and each translation altered their meanings. I don’t even remember what the words mean anymore. My hope is that the viewer can sit with this paragraph and put their own words into those spaces. I’d like to create a text that is open, unifying rather than divisive. Is there a possibility for the viewer to reflect on what they’re actually thinking instead of what they’ve been told?” Perhaps all the things we knew to be true are exactly the same.

Detail of Things I Knew To Be True. Photo: Laughing Dog Photography.