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Ingo Hessel: Back On The Verge Of Discovery

April 2010

Ingo Hessel, at home, again finds himself immersed in Inuit art and craving to get back into his sculpture studio. Photo by Mike Levin

By Mike Levin

For the past few years Ingo Hessel hasn’t worked much on his stone sculptures. He’s been caught up in a high-profile, Inuit curating project, and the separation from his own creation isn’t sitting well. He’s forgotten how working with his hands gets him away from intellectual introspection, how it allows him to live in the moment. He’s forgotten his time at Daisen-in.

In 2001 Hessel moved with his family to Japan when wife Kumiko got a job teaching English at a Kyoto university. They lived outside the city, immediately integrating into village life. Isolated with two children Hessel’s lifelong Foxtrot with curiosity took over. He watched and then joined a Taiko drum group and took part in local festivals. Then he walked into one of Kyoto’s Shinto shrines.

Daisen-in’s large stone sculptures and sand gardens resonated with some deep-seated sensibility. During a conversation with the temple’s administrator, Hessel volunteered to help tend the garden. He soaked in its style and meaning, and within weeks was guiding English-speaking tourists through the grounds. “It appealed to my non-intellectual reasoning. You shed stuff in a place like that.” The reaction would have pleased Daisen-in’s founder.

Kogaku Shuko was a 15th Century samurai.  When he turned 40, his sense of honour resolved into spiritual curiosity. He became a Zen monk, created the tea ceremony and in 1509 was chosen Daisen-in’s first abbot. Five centuries later, a 48-year-old Canadian was also conjuring a new path.

Two-Part Invention I (2005). Courtesy of Ingo Hessel.

Hessel was born into inquisitiveness. His parents, Dieter and Inga, immigrants from East and West Germany, were entrepreneurial socialists, that all-too-rare breed that believes equality and the marketplace don’t have to be mutually exclusive. An early venture was a furniture-repair business in Ottawa, and Ingo could knock apart and reassemble an antique chair at age 12. But he was also reading Bertrand Russell at the same time and doing a school social-studies project on China’s Cultural Revolution. “Culture was huge in our family, season tickets to the Ottawa Little Theatre and being encouraged very early to express my own opinion. I’d been to Europe with my family five times by the time I was 17.”

When Dieter and Inga opened International Books on Slater Street, Ingo worked most of his spare time at the store. “It fed into my curiosity about the world. Opening shipments was like Christmas every day.” By 18 he was ordering stock, loving the ability to hold thousands of titles in his head. That ability to catalogue would change his life.

Hessel’s first job after university in 1981 was with Statistics Canada, where he dug into international company records tallying the percentages of foreign ownership. It was a game that suited his darting mind, but with no real resonance in his spirit. At university he had studied Medieval art and architecture, and the rugged physicality of stone had always put “human actions and history into perspective, literally grounding them.” Discovering Inuit sculpture started a new conversation in his head.

In 1983 he convinced his bosses at StatCan to allow him three days a week at The Canadian Art Information Centre of Indian and Northern Affairs, where he catalogued biographies of Inuit artists. “It was so stimulating. That challenge was enough in itself.” Here, finally, was resonance with the physical, and soon, compiling information was no longer enough.

Surrounded by stone. Photo by Mike Levin

In 1990 he took stone-sculpting courses at the Ottawa School of Art and in Vermont at the Rutland Carving Studio and Sculpture Centre. It was part discovery, part therapy. Hessel was married once before; his first wife died. “(Life) is all about paths. They’re tough to articulate until you hit a crisis. I realized that discovery in art is what keeps me going. It’s a way of being part of something bigger.”

With Inuit art and his own raw stone work, Hessel began to speak about “humanity’s complex relationship with landscape. We live in awe of it, it shapes us, and yet we are constantly trying to transform it.” It indulged his curiosity and formed for the first time a sense of communion; it also led him to a 1991 Inukutuk language course on Baffin Island where he met a linguistics student named Kumiko.

Hessel gave up his public-service job in 1998 to make a career of sculpture, the same year he published Inuit Art: An Introduction. At the book launch, a friend told him about an American couple he’d met who were starting to invest heavily in the field. Maybe something for later, Hessel mused. The move to Japan put his Inuit expertise into storage. While in the Kansai hills he ventured into calligraphy, acrylic painting and printmaking. But he never got far away from stone.

The family spent 18 months overseas before Kumiko was offered a professorship in linguistics at Carleton University. In 2003, Hessel’s Inuit expertise brought a call from the Albrecht’s, the American couple whom he says had “gone mad collecting.” Their collection was at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, and they wanted to take it on the road. Hessel spent the next 2 ½ years curating Arctic Spirit. “It was really quite an amazing collection, really inspiring for my own (sculpting).” But also draining, and soon Hessel was only in his studio sporadically.

Night Sky, Sleeping Mountain (2003). Courtesy of Ingo Hessel.

Big shows means big bureaucratic details. “I tell my students you never know where your path is leading you, that you should always be open to possibilities. I like to think of myself being adaptable, although there are many things I can’t see myself doing. Right now I’m feeling this might be one of them. I feel crazy about it, not having the time or energy to do my own work.”

He’s got one more large curating duty to finish this month, and then he talks about taking a sabbatical. “I don’t think most artists are interested in the spiritual side of art because it is so difficult to know motivation. The art I really appreciate is art that is a window to another plane of reality, something beyond ourselves. It has to be about doing something more with my life than (leaving something for posterity). I’m a confirmed atheist, so where does that leave me?”

It leaves him in the same place he was before Japan: a sculptor and Inuit-art expert who craves, however unconsciously, a break from intellectual introspection. It happens to most people, a point where curiosity gives way to complacency and risk gives way to fear. Ingo Hessel’s greatest concern is that there will never be a time when he can create art fulltime. He also worries that his desire to get back into the studio may simply be a running-away from other things in his life. For a man who’s used discovery to chart his whole life, the shedding of stuff is not yet over.