Many long moons ago, for a few short months, Peter von Tiesenhausen and I were neighbours in an artists’ colony in Banff. Full of the joy and excitement of fertile solitude, we also gleefully indulged in interaction with the other resident souls of like-mind; musicians and dancers and poets and fellow writers and artists.
I saw the other day that 2018 spreads busy for Canadian artist Peter von Tiesenhausen, with exhibitions, film and lectures and artists talks. (I have mentioned Peter before in these pages, in relation to his successful protest – using his art – against mining companies endeavouring to inveigle him with gold to allow his beloved family farm to be ripped up for their pipelines.) Coincidentally, I was myself preparing for a busy 2018 by coordinating and culling files, pictures and the written word (otherwise known as displacement activity or procrastination) and came across a piece I had written about the pleasure of talking art (and other things) with Peter von Tiesenhausen.
It was the early Spring 1993 in the pinewoods of Banff, Alberta (big province, lots of mountains, prairie, oil.) I was reading Annie Dillard. I had never before heard of Annie Dillard but within two weeks her words seemed to be everywhere I’d go, in everything I’d see, or hear, or experience. One night Vincent and Peter came to my studio and I made Irish Coffee. Peter talked and Vincent played guitar and I made Irish Coffee. It was an ordinary visit of new friends, but it was a magic, memorable night. Maudlin, I wanted to preserve it forever, to bring it home to keep. High on creativity, we all felt the same.
“Every day” said Peter (from Demmit, Alberta, pop: negligible) “something wonderful happens.” Then he told us stories about bears: bears in the woods, bears in the Arctic, bears in kitchens, bears eating garbage, eating people, bears down holes, bears up trees.
Later, I was reading “Teaching A Stone to Talk” (Annie Dillard again; she pops up with regularity in my bed.) “The child is nine, and already morbidly nostalgic and given to wringing meaningful moments out of our least occasions. I am thirty five; tolerance for poignancy has diminished to the banishing point. If I wish, and I do not, I can have never-to-be-repeated moments, however dreadful, anywhere and anytime, simply by calling that category to mind.”
Next day I went with Peter to find a dead elk he had heard of in the woods. We found it, not quite picked clean, for there was still some blood, the rib cage yellow, the jaw bone gone, the still-furred legs strewn at different axis, the pelvis, spine and ribs still attached to the neck and head. It was a very long neck, and there were odd protrusions from the vertebrae.
I sat on a log and looked at it, even tried to visualise the kill. Peter walked around, head on one side, hands in pockets, considering whether it was worth the effort to haul the carcass back and call it art. He said he believed that everything that befalls a body is pre-ordained and however happenstance, is valuable to store.
He showed me holes in dead trees made by woodpeckers; we examined lichen, crumbling in our hands the dry lurid green. I told him how one could make different coloured dyes for wool from tree lichen, gorse, onions and seaweed, and explained female genital mutilation, directing him to Alice Walker’s “Possessing the Secret of Joy.” He could hardly believe his ears.
“Jeez” he said “that’s worse than stories about bears.”