Becoming Recognizable by Unravelling Our Stories

Sketch of 'Balance' at the Two Rivers Gallery by me, Photo of Demmit Hall by Peter Von Tiesenhausen

Sketch of 'Balance' at the Two Rivers Gallery by me, Photo of Demmit Hall by Peter Von Tiesenhausen

I'd heard of this guy. I'd heard about the copyright placed on his landscape art that 'encouraged' an energy company to divert their pipeline crossing. Obviously it happened in oil country but I didn't pinpoint where. It also took place around 1996 (and onward) so I likely heard about it years later in a college art class, and not as a local sixth grader.

I'd also heard about the Demmit Community Hall and seen pictures of the beautiful timber frame structure with straw-bale walls, a venue for family events and concerts surrounded by Peace Country prairie landscape.

And while we were born and raised within an hours drive of each other, (albeit a generation apart) I never knew who he was - though we are practically neighbors, in a regional, small town sense.

Peter Von Tiesenhausen spoke about his life and work last night at the Two Rivers Gallery in Prince George to a full house. I was introduced to many of his works for the first time, but what I always find most compelling about artists, and people in general - is the unraveling of our stories, sharing our real life insights and motivations with others.

We become recognizable as real, honest people when we share our personal experiences.

We are very different, but from his talk I know that he and I have these things in common: we've both felt drawn to the arts since childhood, and we've both admitted to feeling alone in our desire to work as artists in rural/remote industrial regions.

I especially loved how Peter shared the advice he was given by an older working artist when he was leaving art school early, only two years into a program.

This man, a mentor of sorts, had worked many years in logging on Vancouver Island before committing to work as an artist full time. Soon to be an art school drop out, Peter asked him - How does a young person make a living doing this?

His friend replied frankly - you don't.

You go out into the world and live a life first. You work hard, experience things, struggle a little, and then you come back to your art with something to say.

This evening was so powerful for me - because this has also been my story. I studied art history then trained in fashion design. A solid theoretical foundation with an overlay of specific, practical skills. I worked in the industry a few years until I decided to no longer struggle, paying my creative dues as a young professional in the city of Vancouver.

I experienced loss & heartache, and traveled around the province for a while. I gained some new insights and skills, worked in hospitality, really loved meeting new people. I experienced some more loss & heartache, and ended up back home in my mothers basement at the age of 25.

I had been so many places I just needed to stay put for a while. I needed to discover what it felt like to be 'home' again. To become apart of a community again. Maybe rediscover an art practice again. Definitely allow my creativity to influence my life in a bigger way again.

I truly believe there is synchronicity at play in this life.

Before I returned home nearly ten years ago, I had a conversation with my friend's father, a man nearing retirement himself, and he asked me what I really wanted to be doing with my life. I said I'd like to start a cafe.

He suggested I consider something more stable or secure. (If you already know me you know how this story ends.) Six months after that same conversation I became involved with Whole Wheat & Honey Cafe. Nine years later, I'm happy to say becoming involved in the cafe business is the best decision I ever made. 

But did it allow me to become a working artist, something I have desired to be for most of my life? On the surface one would say no. But now I disagree.

Working artists' interpret the world around them - their experiences, their perspectives, through their chosen mediums. They connect bigger ideas to the people of a community/society, so that this knowledge or awareness may instigate change. 

Becoming involved with the bigger issues in my life helped me re-connect with my desire to be an artist, it gave me something to work towards (you can read more about that here)

The cafe allowed me to share a space and create an experience with/for my community. In order for this to be done well, an infinite number of details, both aesthetic and logistic, had to be carefully orchestrated. (I love that word, it suits perfectly what I can only try to describe to people who haven't experienced it. It is a delicate orchestration) 

The cafe developed my desire to think bigger, and to create larger and lasting impact in my life and work. In some ways it prepared me to open myself and my home up to the community through our time spent living in the Passive House.

This was another opportunity to share a space (in this case a sustainable building,) create a different experience for a new audience, and hopefully educate our community that homes can feel warm and comfortable and still be low energy in the North.

Peter Von Tiesenhausen titled his talk: Angles of Incidence.

In simple optical terms, he explained it something like this: it's the angle that a light ray striking a surface makes when reflecting. A broader wiki definition calls it: a measure of deviation of something from "straight on."

I like both definitions - because they each indicate a shift in perspective. One in the way we literally see things, and the other in the way we (metaphorically) do things.

With this shifting perspective over the years, I've come to believe my creativity informs everything I touch, everything I think or do. It is a mindset that positively influences my life each day, and allows my life to feel full.

I have not shown in many galleries, my body of actual artwork (textiles mixed with printing/painting) is not yet large, and may be recognized more as craft than as fine art. But I am the artist of my own life, and many various things I have created (spaces, experiences, relationships) I would consider true and lasting works of art.

After his presentation finished there was some time for open Q & A, and I asked what had been on my mind all night.

I was curious for Peter's comments or thoughts on this idea - that he and I are essentially neighbors, that I was from Fort St John, but I had to move to Prince George this year in order to learn more about him at this talk tonight. I'd heard stories about his art, and about the community hall, but still had not connected the dots - and I'm an active creative. So I asked:

How do artists living in rural or northern communities find each other?

His answer sparked a moment of pure synchronicity. He said before they built the Demmit Hall, they felt isolated as artists too - You start to think you are the only one doing things or thinking about things the way you do.

When they built the new hall, all of a sudden, hundreds of people would show up to see a musician or a concert. Young people would get married in the hall, would move their families to Demmit, and join the non-profits' board of directors. They found their place, their space, their community there.

And then he said - good things happen in Grande Prairie, Dawson Creek, and Fort St John too. You just have to get out and look a little harder because there's not as many people like us in small places like these, but they do exist.

"Like that place in the middle of Fort St John - what's it called? Muffins & Buns? That place exists, it's got great coffee, and artwork, my son has played music there, my wife always stops there..."

At this point he pauses, as I'm giggling and trying not to get emotional at the same time, so he asks "Have you heard of it? Do you know the one I'm talking about?"

I take a breath and proudly say "it's called Whole Wheat & Honey Cafe - and I built it."

Whole Wheat & Honey Cafe Catherine Ruddell

What I'm doing with my life right now (teaching creative skills to other aspiring artists, working as a surface pattern designer) is new and challenging and doesn't come with a blueprint or a guidebook. But what gives me hope and courage that I can do this artist thing - is that I have done this before. I am a creator.

I spoke openly about my dreams once before, and they became a reality with a bit of magic and a lot of hard work. I met the right people at the right time, we decided to work together, and we helped each other create something truly special.

That's the power of finding 'your people,' the power of a community - and I hope that you find yours. But if you haven't found it yet in real life, join a community online. 

I don't live in a passive house anymore, but by following other news stories and building projects on Twitter, I stay connected. If you are interested in creativity, art, green building and sustainability issues too, why don't you join my community? I send email updates to my Creatively Sustained community once a week and it's free. If you'd like to join us, enter your info in the form below.

And have a great week!

~ Cat