Sonya VanderVeen Feddema: An interview with art prodigy Josh Tiessen
On December 17, 2016, I had the opportunity to meet Josh Tiessen, age 21, at Heritage Christian Bookstore and Café in St. Catharines, Ontario. Here he read from his recently released book, A Decade of Inspiration, written and produced with his mother, Dr. Julie A. Tiessen. Josh read about his birth to his missionary parents in Russia and their growing awareness that their son had a special gift. Years later, Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz confirmed that Josh is an art prodigy. In an e-mail interview, Josh shared some insights into his life.
Christian Courier: In A Decade of Inspiration, your mother shares stories of several of your mentors. Who were they and how did they influence you?
Josh Tiessen: My parents felt that God brought these mentors into my life, as they themselves could not have recognized and nurtured my talent in the way that these others were able to. My Russian nanny, Lena Zhuk, provided the early guidance I needed, allowing me to venture beyond the usual preschool projects to complicated crafts and even fine art.
Valerie Jones took me very seriously as a nine year old, believing I had a special talent, and was willing to invest time in me even though she had never mentored anyone before, much less a child. My parents say they would not have even thought of booking a public art exhibition for a child, but Val did that for me and showed us the ropes so that we knew how to do it for future shows.
Robert Bateman’s mentorship and endorsement was invaluable to my career, starting the snowball effect of press and media. It was from Bateman that I learned how I could use my art for causes like the environment, and he encouraged me to donate my art when asked . . . only not originals like I had started to do! That was a big impetus behind why I began to do limited edition print series, so I could donate them, but this now also makes up about half of my business as I have more than 50 series, and they are in the range that most people can afford.
Where else did you receive your education?
As for art education, aside from a year-long mentorship under a university professor, as a home educated child and teen I delved into the world of art history. My parents did not have a lot of money for curriculum, so they carefully chose a few high quality art history books for teens, and we borrowed a lot more from the local libraries and a home educators cooperative library of rare books and DVDs (i.e. documentaries about master artists). Other people, including Valerie Jones, handed down to me large coffee table art books about the masters. My mom and I attended local gallery exhibitions, and I have studied the work of a variety of historical artists at art museums in several countries in the years since I graduated from high school at 16.
I am currently in my last year of a Bachelor of Religious Education in Arts and Biblical Studies from Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, and they have been so gracious to transfer in arts mentorships and courses I’ve taken elsewhere. Courses such as philosophy and church history have inspired certain paintings and in my class assignments I have been able to integrate my interest of art theory and theological aesthetics.
On a recent trip, which included time spent in California for my brother to attend a music convention, I did two visit days at masters-level institutions that I am considering for further studies. While their faculty members are eager for me to enroll (even though I’m not finished my bachelor’s degree) gallery owners and art magazine editors who follow my career closely have expressed doubt that my already well-developed professional career will benefit from a master’s degree in fine art, yet I love to study and learn so I am prayerfully considering these opportunities.
Not About the View, Floatmount 16.5″ x 18″ Limited Edition Giclee Print, 2011 (Age 16).
Your Christian parents and church community raised you to know God as the Creator. How has that knowledge had an impact on your art?
As an image-bearer of the Creator God, I believe that God is pleased with us when we use the creative talents he has gifted us with. I feel a responsibility to represent the beauty of the created world to the very best of my ability and to draw on the many metaphors the natural world provides. I came to realize how this reflected much of the Protestant imagination. Although the reformers like John Calvin eschewed art within the church, creation was seen as “God’s theatre,” and nature became the muse for divine inspiration for artists like Jacob van Ruisdael, Vincent van Gogh, and even Puritan pastors such as Jonathan Edwards. While naturalistic art depicting God’s creation was very much affirmed in the Christian tradition that I was raised in, I also wanted to explore the juxtaposition of nature with the manmade world. I am hoping to extend the wonderful analogical view Calvin and Edwards had toward the pristine state of nature to the currently pressing topics of environmental preservation in the wake of nature’s bondage and decay at the hands of humankind (Rom. 8:20-22). I am thankful not only for the knowledge of God as Creator, which nurtured my interest in the natural world, but I am also thankful for the view that I discovered from Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer that God is an artist, meaning that all good art, regardless of style or content, reflects God’s character.
What themes particularly interest you, and why?
Scriptural and theological themes most interest me, as they naturally arise from my life of study and prayer, even as I listen to audio books and lectures as I paint, and pray during the process. That’s why I am taking the Bible College degree, to add further depth and build a strong foundation for the messages that I wish to convey through my art. I have been affirmed in this path not only by Christians but by several non-Christian professors, art gallery owners and curators who respect my efforts to say something of spiritual and philosophical significance through my art. The overarching theme in my work is the interaction between the natural world and man-made structures, often giving rise to metaphors which highlight truth, beauty and the longing for ultimate restoration in the world.
Ultimately, I hope my art points people’s attention back to the Creator. I highlight these ideas in the stories that I write to go with each of my paintings. In this way, I see my art as a witness, and I feel so privileged to have this platform in a sphere of society that pastors or missionaries generally do not have access to. While I do not consider myself a “Christian artist,” I seek to be a respected professional artist who, as a Christian, is not afraid to express my faith through fine art in a sphere that is very secular and needs a Christian voice.
Josh with Dark Night of the Soul, Framed Oil on Baltic Birch 36” x 24” 2016 (Age 20);
What process do you go through to create a painting?
For my style of contemporary high realism a painting can take anywhere from 200-500 hours to complete. I sketch ideas that come to me, as I keep a small sketchbook by my bedside. Ideas often come from Bible reading, prayer, contemplation, and even dreams and ideas in the middle of the night. Sometimes these small concept sketches may take a year or more to come to fruition in larger sketches. I then take reference photos, and arrange them on my computer in a collage, often using up to 20-30 (sometimes the photos give rise to ideas, but it’s often the other way around for me). I adjust composition and lighting if needed using Adobe Photoshop. I usually make a photocopy of a sketch, then draw a grid over it to aid in drawing it onto the panel. My dad builds braced Baltic birch panels to my specifications, and does the layers of gesso and sanding to make them as smooth as possible. I then begin colour blocking in acrylic paints (fast-drying) and gradually move to oils with finer and finer brushes. Sometimes I work side to side, other times top to bottom, like the one I’m working on now (joshtiessen.com/work-in-progress).
In A Decade of Inspiration, you give a brief description of each of the paintings featured there. Can you choose one painting and tell us the story behind it?
Ahoy Sleeper (main picture) is based on Ephesians 5:14, “Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” It is a visual depiction of new life in Christ, which is available to everyone. Although this painting is still waiting for the right collector to purchase it (I pray about these things), it was the one that received my highest art award to date.
Photocredit: Peter Power
Zac, Douglas, Julie and Josh Tiessen.
In the last few years, your family has experienced significant health issues as you each have contracted Chronic Lyme Disease. Please tell us about what you have experienced and how you have coped.
The symptoms of Chronic Lyme Disease are many, and since Lyme is a living bacteria it migrates throughout the body causing havoc to all its systems. I struggle with flu-like symptoms and fatigue, as well as frequent lymph node flare-ups under my right arm that radiate to my painting hand and across my chest. Due to immune dysfunction, we are very susceptible to catching everything going around, and the severity and duration are usually longer to recovery. This makes it challenging for me being in public places so often, with my Studio Gallery open every Tues-Sat afternoon, speaking and teaching engagements, and of course exhibition openings.
We all say that without a loving, caring community of faith that has prayed for us and helped us financially toward treatment, we would be in a much worse place physically, emotionally and spiritually. Our own personal and family practices of spiritual disciplines have kept us strong in our faith throughout years of hardship. Despite earning their PhD and Doctorate in Ministry, my parents have been unable to work – my dad since 2006 and my mom since 2008. With the strength they have, and flexible work hours, I am so appreciative for how they help me with my business as they are able.
Review of Josh Tiessen: A Decade of Inspiration
Story compiled and edited by Dr. Julie A. Tiessen. Book design and text for art by Josh Tiessen (JTSG Publishing, 2016)
In A Decade of Inspiration, Dr. Julie A. Tiessen relates the life story of her 21-year-old son, who is the only known male art prodigy in North America, according to Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz. In this beautifully rendered volume, Josh also shares his art work along with brief descriptions of each piece.
Throughout the narrative, Julie Tiessen develops an overarching framework for her son’s unique accomplishments, namely, all gifts – including Josh’s – come from God, the Creator, and that he alone deserves the glory.
As Josh began to receive greater acclaim for his art through the media and his website, his mother writes that “Josh felt that God was increasing his opportunity to use his art as a way to draw people’s attention back to the Creator. Josh’s work has been greatly influenced by his faith in God, whom he believes designed and created the amazing world we live in. He also views God as the Source from which people get their capacity to create, since we’re made in his image.”
Josh hopes to influence culture with his art. His mother writes, “As a contemporary artist in the 21st century, he would like to be a positive and uplifting presence in the art world. Josh says that he hopes people looking at his art will feel the sense of ‘wonder and awesomeness’ that is in the natural world all around us. As he begins each painting Josh prays, asking God to work through the process. As a result . . . metaphorical and spiritual meaning seem to be infused into his paintings and people often comment on the analogies they draw from them. Many people who have purchased Josh’s art have done so not just because they like it, but because of the deeper meaning behind it.”
When one reads about Josh Tiessen’s numerous accomplishments at such a young age, one realizes that A Decade of Inspiration could have become a self-centered proclamation of a mother’s love for her son. Instead, the book is a refreshing tribute to God, the source of Josh’s gifts, who chose this boy, now a man, to be an artist who reflects God’s artful creation of the world.