He who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results. Henry Ossawa Tanner

Josh Tiessen: Harbinger and Whale Hymn

ArtWay Visual Meditation August 29, 2021

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.



1. ARTWAY – As our latest blog we posted On the Gifts of Street Art by Jason Goroncy. “These works represent an act of reclaiming public space for citizens rather than merely consumers.” Read more

2. 8Th CATHOLIC ARTS BIENNAL – 6 September – 29 October, Verostko Center for the Arts at Saint Vincent College, 300 Fraser Purchase Rd, Latrobe, PA: 8th Catholic Arts Biennial. This year’s Biennial will feature the work of 49 contemporary artists, working across media to visualize the stories, beliefs and rituals of Christianity in new and interesting ways. Utilizing modern methods as well as traditional techniques, the artists have created images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints, biblical narratives and the sacraments, as well as work that engages the contemporary world from perspectives of faith. Mr. Brinker selected 49 works from 396 submissions completed by 159 artists working across the United States as well as internationally. An opening reception planned for Sunday, September 12. The reception will include a public lecture on contemporary Christian art from the juror for this year’s exhibition, David Brinker, at 13 h at the Fred M. Rogers Center on campus. Mr. Brinker is the director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at Saint Louis University. Following the lecture, attendees are invited to the Verostko Center for the Arts to view the Biennial exhibition. The opening reception event on September 12 is free and open to the public, and all guests must register at Off-campus guests not attending the reception but still wishing to view the exhibition must make an appointment prior to in order to visit the Center. Appointments can be made by emailing

3. THE BIG PICTURE ISSUE 2 OUT NOW – This second issue is an exploration of all the multifaceted areas in life where Christ is present and at play. The many contributions in this latest edition cover everything from mathematics and faith, art, poetry, the spiritual significance of rabbits, spiritual retreat to why Herman Bavinck is an essential read for today and John Stott's approach to political theology. We even explore the life giving gift that is keeping chickens! With various articles on artists and art.

4. STAINED GLASS AT THE CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL FOUND TO BE AMONG THE WORLD'S OLDEST – A new non-destructive dating technique on the "Ancestors of Christ" stained glass windows of the Canterbury cathedral have revealed them to be from the 12th-century, making them among the oldest in the world. Originally, the stained glass was thought to be from the 13th century, however, this re-dating has officially revealed them to be much older. The head of the research team has called this find something "hugely significant" as it was previously only thought that only a few stones were left of the cathedral from this period. Read more

5. MAKOTO FUJIMURA INTRODUCES HIS WORK ONLINE – 2 September, 9.30 – 11 h (EDT), Overseas Ministries study Center, Princeton Theological Seminary, online: In The Studio. Makoto Fujimura, renowned Japanese-American artist, will inaugurate our Fall 2021 Online Study Program with a live Zoom broadcast from the Highline Nine Gallery in Chelsea, NY. Makoto will introduce his work at the interface of Christian faith and the communal traumas of Columbine, 9/11, 3/11 (tsunami and earthquake in Northeast Japan), and the COVID-19 pandemic.

6. EXHIBITION ALASTAIR GORDON IN LONDON - 3 September – 29 September, Aleph Contemporary, 12 Piccadilly Arcade, London: Alistair Gordon Quodlibet. This new work delves deeper into Gordon’s ongoing enthusiasm for quodlibet painting and brings in a landscape element from observational painting juxtaposed alongside more illusionistic elements. The exhibition is accompanied by a text by Dr. Kamini Vellodi, author of 'Tinteretto's Difference'. Fellow artist Laurence Noga will also being exhibiting with a solo show downstairs in the gallery. By appointment.

7. MACVOR JOURNAL – MAVCOR Journal is an open-access, peer-reviewed digital publication published by the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion at Yale University. Its “Object Narrative” division is for explicating religious images, objects, monuments, buildings, spaces, performances, or sounds in 1500 words or less. Visual culture encompasses not just “art” but also ephemera and what we might call “kitsch.” In addition to describing the object’s content, each writer also addresses, if applicable, its liturgical or devotional uses and includes relevant historical or cultural context.

8. PODCAST ON RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE – Religious architecture has always been central to architectural history because human societies have always been inspired to build beautiful and high-status buildings as part of their religious practices. On this podcast episode, listen to three historians, writers, and heritage professionals talk about new approaches to considering the history of buildings used by communities of faith.

9. BOOK ABOUT ART IN KONGO – Cecile Fromont, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo. Williamsburg, VA: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2017. Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the west central African kingdom of Kongo practiced Christianity and actively participated in the Atlantic world as an independent, cosmopolitan realm. Drawing on an expansive and largely unpublished set of objects, images, and documents, Cecile Fromont examines the advent of Kongo Christian visual culture and traces its development across four centuries marked by war, the Atlantic slave trade, and, finally, the rise of nineteenth-century European colonialism. By offering an extensive analysis of the religious, political, and artistic innovations through which the Kongo embraced Christianity, Fromont approaches the country's conversion as a dynamic process that unfolded across centuries. The African kingdom's elite independently and gradually intertwined old and new, local and foreign religious thought, political concepts, and visual forms to mold a novel and constantly evolving Kongo Christian worldview. Fromont sheds light on the cross-cultural exchanges between Africa, Europe, and Latin America that shaped the early modern world, and she outlines the religious, artistic, and social background of the countless men and women displaced by the slave trade from central Africa to all corners of the Atlantic world. Paperback ca $26.

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

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