Written by Conor Sweetman of Toronto, Ontario
Josh Tiessen was featured by the Huffington Post as an art prodigy at the ripe age of 16. With a calm and pleasant demeanour, he brings a sense of excellence and confidence to everything he applies himself to, particularly his artistic craft.
“I’m fascinated by the intersection of art and faith,” he explains in a soft, kind voice, “and I think my generation is interested as well, but we have to bring it down from the ivory tower of academia and into the common language for everyday people like us to understand. I’m interested in distilling philosophical and biblical concepts into pieces that are digestible through my art.”
With his awe-inspiring ability as a hyper-realist painter, he understands that realism can meet people where they are at with something immediately accessible. “It’s an approachable style of art that people can draw near to and appeals to all generations.”
His early success is remarkable and includes having been deemed an “Associate Living Master” by the Art Renewal Center — the premiere international centre for Contemporary Realism — as well as having his paintings hung around the world and featured in exhibitions in California and Colorado.
His artistic process is composed of lengthy hours in the studio painting and listening to audiobooks and podcasts. In his own words, “Each painting undergoes a long process. A single piece can be in my mind and sketchbooks for 1-2 years before I actually start painting. Ideas formulate over time from things that I read, whether it be from Scripture or other books. I keep a sketchbook beside my bed for any imaginative ideas I have. Then, once I start the painting, it will take anywhere between 200-1,100 hours to finish the final product.”
In his latest piece, “Occidental Babylon,” up to 60 photos were used as reference. Painted over a period of seven months, it is part of a series called “Streams in the Wasteland” based on the imagery of the Bible. This particular piece draws upon the Old Testament passage of Isaiah 13, where hyenas inhabit the ruins of Babylon, symbolizing a centre of idolatry.
Tiessen attempts to pack his paintings with theological meaning, often taking scriptural concepts and framing them in modern illustrations. Thus, this Babylonian metaphor got Tiessen thinking about the Californian gold rush in what is now called Bodie Ghost Town. What was seen as a kind of American promised land — the most successful boomtown of the era with a discovery of $34 million worth of gold — eventually became a metaphorical Babylon as the mines were ravaged, the gold dried up and the city was abandoned. A fire burned down almost all the buildings.
“I kind of made it as a cautionary tale,” Tiessen explains wryly.
Despite his artistic success which necessitates hours alone immersed in his craft, Tiessen desires that his life integrates the action-oriented faith of Jesus Christ. He explains, “I’m an introvert, so naturally I like being by myself in my studio, but it is very important for me to have a philanthropic element to my business. So, a few years ago I started the “Arts for a Change Foundation.” Through that I’ve been able to donate to over 75 charitable organizations, supporting a variety of causes — people, animals and the environment.”
“Artists have to get used to a lot of failure, even if people don’t really see that.”
Tiessen enjoys inspiring youth to follow their passion, and as an extension of Arts for a Change, he has the opportunity to speak at schools, churches and community groups.
“I get to speak in public schools and weave my testimony subtly into my talk. I haven’t been kicked out yet,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s a way I can share my story and impact, showing the value of the way we’ve all been made in the image of Christ by the master artist.”
“Further, I see my faith in action through the visual arts ministry at my church where I curate a gallery and artist’s nights throughout the year, encouraging artists that there can be crossover between their faith and art in a mutually beneficial scenario.”
Despite his success, Tiessen speaks humbly and reminds us, “Not everything is perfect, and people can get a certain impression that it’s all been amazing. But there have definitely been setbacks, and even health wise, my family has chronic Lyme disease, with symptoms affecting me as well. All in all, artists have to get used to a lot of failure, even if people don’t really see that.
“The Bible warns, ‘What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ This keeps me grounded in the purpose of my life. It can’t be just about growing in fame and talent — you can’t build your life on something so shaky. That’s why my relationship with Christ is my anchor.”