“The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland . . .”
—Isaiah 43:20 (NIV)
This verse from the prophetic book of Isaiah supplies the title of artist Josh Tiessen’s Streams in the Wasteland series. Comprising seventeen paintings of wild animals inhabiting abandoned cities, it took six years to complete, from 2015 to 2021. In this body of work Tiessen weds a biblical imagination with his passion for wildlife conservation to promote ecological ethics, or what Christians call “creation care”—the biblical imperative to be benevolent stewards of the environment and all its creatures. He says he wants to represent “the majesty, particularity, and beauty of animals” (Streams in the Wasteland, p. 33)—to evoke wonder, love, and empathy, and a greater sense of responsibility.
“The whole creation has been groaning,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, seeking to “be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” Creation has been damaged in large part by humanity’s sin, which has caused deforestation, land degradation, ozone depletion, and species endangerment and extinction, among other harms. Instead of enjoying the full flourishing God intended, the natural world suffers.
Streams in the Wasteland engages with the question, What would the liberation of animals from the bondage to decay look like? Some of Tiessen’s creative visual responses:
- An Indian temple elephant breaks free of its shackles, no more to be prodded and paraded for the people’s religious festivals.
- Released from aquarium amusement parks where they were exploited for entertainment, a pod of orcas journeys down a canyon river into the ocean past their ancestors’ skeletal remains, which will one day rise.
- A jackalope—the mythical horned rabbit of North American folklore—sheds its antlers, a passing shadow of the old world. Rabbits with hornlike protrusions on or near their heads have actually been found in nature, the cancerous growths a result of a papillomavirus.
Tiessen calls his style “narrative hypersurrealism,” as he renders the animals with technical precision and great attention to naturalistic detail (hyperrealism) but places them in a postapocalyptic context, revealing strange beauty in the unexpected (surrealism). And in contrast to traditional wildlife art, Tiessen’s art tells a story. For Streams in the Wasteland, that story is one of reclamation and healing—but also one of warning for those who neglect God’s laws.
In preparation for this series, Tiessen wrote a research paper on zoological motifs in the book of Isaiah. He found that in several prophecies of judgment, God gives animals dominion over human civilization—an ironic reversal, the “weak” shaming the powerful.
Take Isaiah 13:19–22, for example:
Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
But desert creatures will lie there,
jackals will fill her houses;
there the owls will dwell,
and there the wild goats will leap about.
Hyenas will inhabit her strongholds,
jackals her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged.
In addition to Babylon, Isaiah indicts other unjust nations: in Cush the fruit of the vine “will all be left to the mountain birds of prey” (18:6), and in Edom “the desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there” (34:11). Concerning the kingdom of Judah: moles and bats will take over idols of silver and gold (2:20), lambs will feed on the food of the rich (5:17), and Jerusalem will become void of human activity and instead be “the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks” (32:14). It’s not just nocturnal animals and scavengers that crop up, but also harmless ones like foals and sheep.
Returning to the opening quote of this article, we see that Isaiah describes an eschatological reality in which God’s abundant provision elicits thanksgiving and praise from the animal kingdom. But they are Israel’s foil: whereas the animals are sensible of God’s goodness, God’s people are not. “Yet you have not called on me, Jacob. . . . You have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses” (43:22, 24).
Tiessen understands such animals “as the Creator’s special agents worthy of intrinsic value and a role in history. I 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” (Streams in the Wasteland, p. 22).
Therefore, in Streams in the Wasteland, a barn owl stakes its place on a plinth of a Gothic cathedral alongside sculptures of the saints, meerkats lounge on a chaise inside a Baroque manor, lar gibbons swing from the entryway of a university, and a pack of spotted hyenas wanders through Bodie, a California Gold Rush boomtown known for its sin, now a ghost town.
I’m very familiar with the Isaiah passages where creatures are presented as blessings of Edenic hope for the future, existing peaceably with humans (e.g., Isa. 11:6–9), but I had never really stopped to consider all the places where they are said to overtake what we deem human domains. Such passages are certainly more uncomfortable for us humans!
Though humans’ neglect or mistreatment of animals is not specifically what prompts God’s pledged use of animals to shame the rebellious nations, surely our disregard for the creation mandate in Genesis—to rule the earth with care and compassion—is a form of rebellion against God. And so Tiessen extends his reading of Isaiah to address that call in particular, which is echoed in other parts of scripture, such as Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous care for the needs of their animals.” By placing animals in human habitations, Tiessen compels us to remember our obligations to our nonhuman neighbors.
Perhaps my favorite painting from Tiessen’s series is Whale Hymn. The setting is the ruined shell of St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a twelfth-century church that once towered over the city of London but that was irreparably bombed during World War II. It has since been converted into a public garden. In his futuristic vision, Tiessen imagines it surrounded by floodwaters, a humpback whale swimming by. This giant of the deep sings its song to the Creator in the same place where generation after generation of Christians sang their praises until human violence rendered the building unusable.
Isaiah is not the only biblical source of inspiration for Tiessen. Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones inspired Can These Bones Live?, which shows a monarch butterfly gliding through the ribcage of a human skeleton, and its sequel, Rise Up—the only two paintings with human figures.
Tiessen was born in 1995 in Moscow to Canadian missionary parents. His Russian nanny, Lena Zhuk, taught him drawing basics, like perspective and shading, and, when he showed aptitude, bought him his first set of tempera paints, brushes, large heavy paper, and other materials. When he and his family moved back to Canada, Valerie Jones, a fellow church member and artist, noticed his talent and got him his first public art exhibition at age eleven. Then when Tiessen was fifteen, Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman took him on as a student and mentee. He graduated from high school at age sixteen and began exhibiting throughout North America while working on a bachelor’s of religious education in arts and biblical studies at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, which he earned in 2020. His professional memberships include Artists for Conservation, the Society of Animal Artists, and the International Guild of Realism.
He currently lives in Stoney Creek, Ontario.
Tiessen has self-published a hardcover, glossy-paged, full-color book that collates all the works from Streams in the Wasteland, providing commentary on them (additional to that on his website), which includes engagement with scholarly interpretations of the Isaiah passages. Through sketches and more, he sheds light on his artistic process and also provides autobiographical information. The book comes with a CD of instrumental compositions by his brother Zac Tiessen that respond to each of the paintings—an atmospheric soundscape. It would make a great gift.
The culmination of the series is Agnus Dei, a triptych featuring all the animals in the individual paintings gathering around a horned altar where the Lamb of God lies slain. Tiessen drew inspiration from Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Francisco de Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei, and the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich featuring abandoned abbeys, churches, and cemeteries in winter.
Instead of saints from the Homo sapiens species surrounding the Lamb in worship, Tiessen shows a giant panda, a double-wattled cassowary, a narwhal, and other animals paying homage to Christ. They, too, are drawn up into God’s awesome story of redemption. They, too, participate in the “new thing” God is doing.
“My painting is . . . a critique of the human-centric bias within Western art history,” Tiessen writes. “This is best seen in Renaissance paintings where animals seldom appear, and if they do, it is simply for allegorical purposes. By enlisting wild animals as protagonists with intrinsic value amidst the wasteland of human existence, I endeavor to revise Western art history through a zoological lens, liberating the Judeo-Christian worldview from its perversion at the hands of anthropocentric Greek philosophy.”
This final image shows animals liberated from the effects of the fall, honoring the One whose atoning death and resurrection reconciles all to God (Col. 1:19–20).
To see which of these paintings are available for purchase—either the originals or reproductions or notecards—visit https://www.joshtiessen.com/store.