Protecting our sanctuaries

I live in something of a self-imposed media vacuum. I don’t watch TV or read newspapers, except occasionally online. LW flips on CBC radio in the mornings while she drinks her two cups of coffee, so I hear snippets of North by Northwest and the odd bit of news. Consequently I heard about Peter von Tiesenhausen the same way I hear about most things anymore: on Facebook.


It turns out that this story isn’t new news. Von Tiesenhausen is a heavy equipment operator turned artist who lives in rural northern Alberta. In the 1990s, when the big oil companies started eyeing up the natural gas under his 800-acre farm, he devised a brilliant and effective method of peaceful resistance: he copyrighted the top six inches of his land as a work of art.

Here’s what I learned about the artist from a 2006 article in The Edmonton Journal:

The spread von Tiesenhausen inherited from his parents, a former family farm 80 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, sits atop a natural gas hot spot known as the “deep basin.” Industry has been in aggressive growth mode in the area since … the early 1970s.



The artist … accepts that he only owns the surface of his land. The buried treasure belongs to the provincial government. It has rights to sell the resources and make him let companies onto his property to extract them,  so long as he is compensated for the disturbance.



Around his home and studio, his property is studded with artwork such as a 33-metre-long ship sculpted with willow stalks, winter ice forms, nest-like structures in trees, statuesque towers and a “lifeline” or visual autobiography composed as a white picket fence built in annual sections left to weather naturally.


His legal move vastly increased the amount of compensation he is potentially entitled to demand from any oil or pipeline company wanting access to his place, because changing his property would be copyright infringement. “Now instead of maybe $200 a year for crop losses, we’d have to be paid for maybe $600,000 or more in artistic property disturbance.”


Lawsuits have been threatened several times. But no oil and gas companies have risked a winner-take-all court case that would attract public attention and start other landowners thinking.


Making the copyright claim stick has been a moral boost for the artist and his family. “It gave us the confidence to say this is as legitimate an undertaking as the industry.


“We can empower ourselves. We can defend ourselves. We’re running a business.”


Von Tiesenhausen emphasizes his message in the language of corporations—money. Taking a page from the books of business consultants, he demands $500 an hour from companies that want to take up his time talking to him about his land. “I demand $500 an hour. They pay. It keeps the meetings really short and they don’t do it nearly as often as they used to,” the artist said.


“I meet presidents of oil companies. I show them I’m a guy trying to make a go of something that’s honest and valid. It’s what they understand.”

When I heard this story, I assumed that von Tiesenhausen’s art was merely an ingenious scheme, but further investigation revealed that he’s exhibited his work across North America and Europe. His art has been the subject of 3 national television documentaries including the award-winning “Elemental” produced in 2000 for Adrienne Clarkson Presents. According to the artist’s website,

his multidisciplinary practice includes painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, installation, event, video and performance. His work often involves the community in which he is working and utilizes the materials to be found there. He has created several permanent and ephemeral public artworks throughout North America and in Europe and has works in many public and private collections.

My internet travels also brought me to The Chapel, the website of artist Kathleen Moors, and her hauntingly beautiful photographs of a dance performance at the art installation von Tiesenhausen calls Sanctuary.






Take a look at Peter von Tiesenhausen’s website to see the sanctuary he’s protecting with his art. His story gives me such a sense of hope. With enough imagination, we can protect our sacred places.

Arundhati Roy says, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”

Can you hear?

3 Responses to “Protecting our sanctuaries”

  1. Sarah

    So inspiring, Leslie. Thanks for bringing this to my awareness and to getting my imagination working in another way. I will be passing the story on. Love, Sarah

  2. commatologist

    Thank you, Sarah. I know – isn’t it amazing how it sparks you to think a little differently?

  3. commatologist

    And then there are the implications of copyrighting land that has been taken from Indigenous peoples through colonization. (I’m not raising the point in relation to this specific situation, just pondering a general question.)


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