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Tiessen, Josh - VM - Josh Tiessen

Josh Tiessen: Harbinger and Whale Hymn


by Josh Tiessen

On my nightstand I keep a sketchbook for ideas that come to me as I read and sleep. Studying in the biblical book of Isaiah about the destruction of Babylon, the description of wild animals inhabiting abandoned cities inspired me (Isaiah 13:19). Suddenly a flurry of ideas started swirling through my mind for a new painting series depicting animals in deserted spaces, bringing honour to their Creator and figuratively calling for redemption in the wake of moral decline (Isaiah 43:20).

I was interested in Gothic architecture and owls, so both of these came together for the first work in this series. I designed a shaped braced panel with a two inch depth on the top and a half inch on the bottom, giving the appearance that the top of the painting is leaning forward. The tall, narrow shape of Gothic cathedrals was intended to cause the viewer to look upward. The symbolic features in this style of architecture captivate me. The three-leaf trefoil design references the Trinity, included above and below the ledge in the painting between the Gothic arches.

As I was painting, I thought about the meaning I wanted to suffuse in the three statues through symbols. These are meant to be read from left to right as archetypes of Israel's history. They include the book inscribed Zion,” the scroll from Isaiah, and the dagger with cross. Ultimately, the crumbling cathedral forms a backdrop of the past, while the living Barn Owl reflects the glory of the light, standing as a harbinger of the one who would make a way in the wilderness for the coming Redeemer (Isaiah 40:3, John 1:23).

Whale Hymn

While living in Russia, our family contracted lyme disease that is caused by the bite of infected blacklegged ticks that induce fever, rash, headache and fatigue that left untreated can spread to joints and organs throughout the body. It is transmitted by animals, from mice to deer then to humans. Unfortunately, if not diagnosed early enough, it can become chronic, but thanks to an army of supporters we were able to get treatment in Florida in the USA. During three months of IV infusions stronger than chemotherapy, after long days at a clinic I would putter away on a painting in our friends' first-floor waterfront condo. This provided a therapy of its own through a very challenging time, an escape to another world.

While working on a large painting like Whale Hymn, the long process allowed me ample time to conceptually formulate my thoughts on the piece. Continuing what I had entitled my Streams in the Wasteland series, this painting fit the theme of wild animals in abandoned spaces. Gothic architecture fascinates me for its diversity, which also reflects the variety and lack of rigidity in the natural world. It reveals a gradual discovery of the beauty found in natural forms, which could be transferred into stone edifices as John Ruskin (1800-1900), the renowned polymath art critic suggested. I imagined the concept for this painting over a year earlier, then later found architectural reference from the ruins of a 12th century cathedral in London, England. It was transformed into a peaceful garden intertwined with ivy, red roses, and fallen petals (historically symbolic of the Passion of Christ). This provided an intriguing exterior for an ocean scene emanating through glass windows.

I became interested in humpback whales from watching the BBC series Ocean Giants, which recorded epic sights and sounds of the largest mammals to ever live on the planet. The behaviour of whales, specifically their vocalization, remains somewhat of a mystery to scientists. Many believe their ‘songs’ may be more than mating calls and passed down for the non-utilitarian act of expressing emotions through the generations like cherished anthems.

In contemplating this I looked back to the Gothic cathedral, a space for praise where parishioners sang hymns to their Creator. Even as the haunting chants from the giants of the deep bring honour to their Maker. This painting served as a reminder for me to bring praise and honour to my Creator even in the midst of my chronic illness.


Josh Tiessen: Harbinger, 2015, Oil on Baltic Birch, 24 x 15 x 2 inches.

Josh Tiessen: Whale Hymn, 2015, Oil on Baltic Birch, 36 x 48 x 2 inches.

These painting stories are excerpts from Josh Tiessen’s latest art monograph, Streams in the Wasteland, available through

Josh Tiessen was born in 1995 in Moscow, Russia, where his parents were professors and humanitarian workers. He graduated with a Bachelor of Religious Education in Arts, Biblical Studies, and Philosophy in 2020 from Emmanuel Bible School in Kitchener, ON Canada. He works out of Josh Tiessen Studio Gallery, located between Toronto and Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada. His shaped oil paintings, which take up to 1700 hours to complete, reflect the interaction between the natural world and human cultures. Mentored by acclaimed Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman, Tiessen has exhibited his work since 2006 in over 100 shows including the National Gallery of Canada and prestigious galleries throughout the United States. He has sold over 150 original works to private and corporate Canadian and international collectors. As a teenager, he was juried in as the youngest member of International Guild of Realism, Artists for Conservation, and Society of Animal Artists. Over 60 awards include the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Canadas Top 20 Under 20, and numerous international awards. As a young adult, Art Renewal Center designated him Associate Living Master, and New York-based gallery Jonathan LeVine Projects awarded him first place from 2000 artists in their international competition. LeVine presented the emerging artists debut international solo exhibition, Streams in the Wasteland, in May 2019. Tiessen is also a sought-after speaker and writer.

ArtWay Visual Meditation August 29, 2021