MA Program Takes a New Approach to Art History

Grad student studies ancient images, documents today’s culture with a camera

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MA student and Guelph photographer Chris Tiessen

“Any career where I can carry a camera around with me all the time, or be dealing with visual images either by creating them or commenting on them, is the career I want,” says Chris Tiessen. With more than one possible route to that goal, he’s following several paths at once: Tiessen is one of five students in the second year of the new art and visual culture MA program, and is also publisher of the SNAP Guelph newspaper.

His academic aspirations come naturally: both of Tiessen’s parents are professors, and he says he started spending his days at Wilfrid Laurier University, attending their lectures when he was just three years old. Tiessen has an MA in history from York University and has completed most of a PhD in history at U of G.

“I’ve always tended to be interested in the visual aspects, the images and pictures of history,” he says. “Throughout much of history, people were illiterate in our contemporary understanding of the term, so they were taught visually with images. In the medieval Christian church, for instance, everything visual was meant to teach something ─ from the vestments worn by the clergy, to the sculptural programs on church walls, to entire city layouts, to spectacular illustrations in illuminated manuscripts and crude woodcut images printed in ephemeral pamphlets.”

Increasingly drawn to art history, he decided to move from his history PhD and into the brand new master’s program based in the School of Fine Art and Music.

“This program reflects a new trend in art historical methods that expands upon what can be examined,” he explains. “Traditional art history has its narrow and rather archaic established canon, but this program looks at art outside the traditional ─ things like punk fashion, Time magazine covers, camera body aesthetics and so much more.”

Tiessen’s thesis looks at 104 etchings commissioned for the 1685 edition of the Dutch Mennonite martyrology, Martyrs Mirror.

He says these iconic etchings, fashioned by Dutch artist Jan Luyken and depicting the gruesome killings of sixteenth-century Anabaptists by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, have generally been accepted by Mennonite scholars and writers as “almost proto-photographic, ‘truthful’ visual depictions of the Anabaptist past.”

However, Tiessen maintains that these etchings, created more than 100 years after the incidents they portray, are in fact fashioned visual texts that speak more to the seventeenth-century socio-political environment of the Mennonites than to any “objective” sixteenth-century Anabaptist past.

“These etchings remain very important in the Mennonite tradition,” he says. “On bedside tables, beside the family Bible, countless Mennonite families have a copy of the Martyrs Mirror.”

Tiessen knows these traditions personally, because his family on both sides traces back to sixteenth-century Dutch Anabaptists. “I am simply looking to situate these etchings within their proper historical context – that is, to re-present them in a new light for scholars of Mennonite history and the broader Mennonite community.”

He speaks enthusiastically about what he’s learned from Prof. Sally Hickson, acting director of the art and visual culture program, and program director Prof. Dominic Marner, currently on sabbatical. “Sally and Dominic, along with retired art historian Chandler Kirwin, are among my heroes, both inside and outside of the classroom,” he says.

The distance between Mennonite martyr etchings and SNAP Guelph’s photos of local events seems immense, but Tiessen has no trouble traversing it. “SNAP is a great gig,” he says. “I especially love that I get to work with the local not-for-profit groups, and celebrate the heroes in the city that don’t get the coverage they deserve.”

SNAP Guelph is a free monthly newspaper with 20,000-25,000 readers. It’s heavy on photos ─ many of them his own ─ and focuses on “any community group or event that needs some exposure,” Tiessen says. “There are hundreds of grassroots organizations in Guelph doing important things and I am glad to be able to help them.” The publisher is also SNAP Guelph’s chief photographer, editor and even delivery person, and he’s often seen around Guelph with his camera in hand and his Labrador retriever, Lucy, tagging along.

Tiessen devotes long hours to his newspaper duties ─ often 60 or more per week, he says ─ and admits that it’s not about the paycheque. “It’s the kind of job where you never wake up and think ‘this day will be boring.’ It’s the people you meet and seeing the great things they’re doing in the community that really keep you going.”

Although his gig at SNAP Guelph always presents new and exciting challenges, Tiessen’s real vocation may lie in the classroom. He received the 2006-2007 College of Arts teaching award for graduate teaching assistants and was nominated for the 2007-2008 sessional award. “The classroom is where the excitement and the sparks are, and I especially love taking something perceived as dry, like religious history, and making it fun and engaging.”

He co-chairs the teaching assistant advisory council, edits the group’s newsletter and helped develop its monthly discussion group. He’s currently teaching four tutorials each week in art history.

He spends his spare time with his partner, Katy, and their sons, Dylan, 11, and Oliver, six months.