Offering streams of hope
Review of "Streams in the Wasteland" by Josh Tiessen.
In a March 2017 Christian Courier article, I interviewed art prodigy Josh Tiessen about his then just released book, A Decade of Inspiration, written and produced with his mother, Dr. Julie A. Tiessen. Recently, Tiessen contacted me about his new book of art, Streams in the Wasteland, the title and the theme of which were inspired by the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
“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, you have not wearied yourselves for me, Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices” (Isaiah 43:20-23a).
In 2015, Tiessen started what he calls “an unusual new body of work” without the possibility of a solo exhibition. Working in faith over a period of five years, the now 25-year-old Tiessen painted 17 works of art developing what he calls “a post-apocalyptic world where animals inhabit forsaken human civilizations.” As he worked, he pondered this question: “What would the liberation of animals from the bondage of decay look like?” Tiessen began to view the animals mentioned in Isaiah’s writing as “the Creator’s special agents worthy of intrinsic value and a role in history” and he “caught a glimpse of Isaiah’s larger vision for animals serving as co-workers with the Creator to confront humanity, calling from within the ruins of human moral decay.”
Tiessen says he is an artist first and an environmentalist second. He ponders the daunting number of environmental crises we are witnessing today in the light of biblical hope and God’s call for humanity to care for his world: “I desire to offer streams of hope from within what seems like an inevitable apocalyptic wasteland, graphically foreshadowed in many documentaries and Hollywood movies. Conservation efforts are crucial, but need not be motivated by such extremism or anxiety. Leading climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe reminds us: ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline’” (2 Tim. 1:7 NLT).
Readers of Streams in the Wasteland need not be art experts (I certainly am not!) to appreciate the depth of insight and scope of biblical study Tiessen brought to the creation of this series of paintings in which he brings honour to God. Each of the depictions of the 17 paintings, shown from differing angles, and uniquely shaped and framed, is accompanied by an in-depth explanation offering the historical, spiritual, and philosophical background and making the meaning of the painting accessible.
Though the reader will encounter the harsh reality of a broken world through Tiessen’s paintings, the artist lands on a resounding note of hope, poignantly pointing out the true reason for the chaos of this world – our sin and rebellion against God – and our only hope: “Unlike some environmentalists, I participate in caring for creation from a place of grace, not legalism. I also recognize that the problem isn’t only external – governments and corporations (although they are culpable too), but in my own heart. With our best human efforts global environmental sustainability is possible, but the world will still be broken in other ways because our deeper need is spiritual renewal. I rest in the abiding assurance that a broken world can only be restored by its Creator, and that’s where I personally find hope for the future.”
Josh Tiessen’s book is accompanied with an original musical soundtrack composed by his brother, Zac Tiessen. Each of the songs was purposely composed to match the length of time a viewer would need to look at the painting and read the accompanying explanation. A CD is available with the purchase of the book, or the album can be streamed on Spotify and Apple Music.
Poignant, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful, Streams in the Wasteland is a compelling contribution to Christian art and a prophetic call to care for the earth God has graciously given humanity for his glory.