A Review of
Streams in the Wasteland
Hardcover: JTSG Publishing, 2021
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by C.S. Boyll
One intriguing story from the Covid-19 pandemic has been the wild animal behavior spotted worldwide during our global sabbath rest. Via media, we’ve seen dolphins swim in Venice’s canals, cougars prowl Santiago neighborhoods, and wild boars strut Haifa streets.
Such wonders amaze and gnaw the conscience. How much have we lost and are losing as poor caretakers of God’s creation? For many years, Canadian artist Josh Tiessen has been meditating on kingdom animals and their place under human stewardship. He challenges, “Are not the animals still calling us to faithful stewardship of the planet we’ve been entrusted with?” ( 25).
His beautiful monograph Streams in the Wasteland explores that question, featuring 18 paintings, mostly of wild animals roaming the ruins of extinct civilizations. The collection debuted in May 2019 at New York City’s Jonathan LeVine Projects gallery.
Forgive the pun, but It’s difficult to pigeon-hole this 26-year-old artist. At age 15, Tiessen was mentored by renowned nature artist Robert Bateman. Like Bateman, Tiessen paints his animals as they exist, down to every whisker, beak, and claw. Unlike Bateman, Tiessen places his animals into “what if” settings. He says his art falls under “hyper surrealism.” It works, therefore, to paint 13 Spotted Hyenas exploring a California ghost town (Occidental Babylon). In Harbinger, the Barn Owl perches on a Gothic Cathedral. For Peace Like a River, which is also the book jacket, Tiessen paints an aerial perspective of Orcas swimming through a winding river.
His works offer enchantment, sometimes with humor and cleverness, often as provocative parables, revealing more to those who have eyes to see.
An introduction by writer Terry Glaspey and a 22-page synopsis, plus commentary on each work, explain the artist’s point-of-view. Tiessen writes he hopes back stories “enhance the viewing experience,” and “in no way are my interpretations intended to be exhaustive for what the paintings may mean to viewers. My stories are like the lyrics to a song—you can still enjoy the music on its own, but the lyrics add depth and context” ( 35).
Many of Tiessen’s concepts begin from daily scripture meditations with a sketchbook nearby. He uses primary and secondary sources to recreate animals and ancient architecture. The book is dedicated to the Prophet Isaiah, whose inspired zoological motifs sparked his imagination. For example, Isaiah 43:18-19 aided him with three works:
“The wild animals honor me.
The jackals and the owls,
Because I provide water in the wilderness
And streams in the wasteland,
To give drink to my people, my chosen,
The people I formed for myself
That they may proclaim my praise.
Yet you have not called on me, Jacob….”
Explaining the genesis for Peace Like a River, Tiessen writes, “In the biblical book of Isaiah, the imagery of a river cutting through a barren wasteland is symbolic of the eschatological hope that justice and mercy will one day reign, ushering in peace and wholeness. After reading about nations streaming to the holy mountain, I envisioned a pod of Orcas released from aquarium amusement parks, journeying down a canyon river toward their intended home. On the way they pass remnants of humankind: a hewn cave, carnage from the drought, and their ancestors’ bones that await resurrection to new life” (61).
Tiessen’s zoological theology and mentor Bateman’s example have propelled him into conservation. He participates in numerous environmental groups and has created the Arts for a Change Foundation to disperse a portion of money received from his work.
The powerful and beautiful encore piece Agnus Dei (oil on birch, 65 x 105 x 3 inches) is what Tiessen calls his 2020-2021 “pandemic painting.” He labored 1700 hours to complete this altarpiece triptych of the slain Lamb of God surrounded by the other 17 animals featured in the collection. The painting’s background displays a snow-covered cemetery of tilted tombstones. Tiessen writes this painting was influenced by Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Lamb (1432) and Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei (1635-40), but unlike them it is a “critique of the human-centric bias in Christian art history” (106).
One painting does depict flesh and blood humans. Rise Up, a sequel to Can These Bones Live? (skeleton and Monarch butterflies, is a hat tip to singer and songwriter Lauren Daigle and supports Ezekiel 37 as well as Isaiah 26:19 which says:
“Your dead will live, Lord;
their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust
Wake up and shout for joy—….”
Rise Up focuses on a biracial 15-year-old model, dressed in lacy white dress, resurrected and reaching toward heaven. Fifteen monarchs swirl around her. Except for skeletal feet and legs, her body has transformed into flesh. Two tiny background images, an elderly Caucasian man and a middle-aged Indonesian woman, also ascend from rocky spires.
A CD of music, composed and arranged by brother Zac Tiessen, accompanies this book. Each soundtrack fits the theme of a corresponding painting, and the book has headphone icons and numbers available through Spotify and Apple Music. During quarantine, Zac, who plays six instruments, enlisted 18 other musicians worldwide to help create the pieces. The music is easy listening, reminiscent of cinematic theme songs.
Tiessen’s parents, former professors and missionaries to Russia, also help Josh in his vocation. Dad Doug crafts complicated shaped frames for the art. Mom Julie aids in business details. While in Russia, where Josh and Zack were born, the family contracted Lyme Disease from their dog. This sickness forced them to return to Canada, where they were misdiagnosed for 10 years.
Tiessen’s Whale Hymn, where a Humpback swims past 12th-century cathedral ruins, resonates with the idea of intertwined faith and suffering. He explains, “In contemplating this [whale song] I looked back to the gothic cathedral, a space for praise where parishioners sang hymns to their Creator. So also metaphorically the haunting chants from the giants of the deep bring honor to their Maker. This painting serves as a reminder to me to bring praise and honor to my Creator even in the midst of my chronic illness” (25).
Tiessen, whose ancestry includes Mennonite and Judaic heritage, now works at his Stoney Creek, Ontario, gallery on another collection—his meditations on biblical wisdom expressed in hyper-surrealism art.
Full disclosure: The reviewer and her husband Chuck met Josh Tiessen in September 2021 and were his Colorado Springs hosts during the Anselm Society’s annual conference, “Imagination Redeemed.”