The voices of artists on the front lines.

Originally posted in The Crossing.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Overstreet
Reproduction is forbidden without permission of the author.
Contact Jeffrey Overstreet at

FORUM ONE: Artists and “Honesty”

-from The Crossing, The Honesty Issue, 1997-

featuring: Bob Briner, Michael Demkowicz, Clint Kelly, Reverend Michael Kelly, Scott Nolte, Rose Reynoldson, and Bryan Rust


The novelist grumbles as he re-writes a book to please the publisher, because the process smacks of compromise, of “dishonesty”. A songwriter shares melody and poetry with an unresponsive audience, and she is wounded by the undervalueing of her “honesty”. An actor berates what can or can’t be portrayed onstage, because such limits prevent an “honest” performance. Veterans complain a Vietnam War film is not “honest about the truth of the situation in Vietnam.” Honesty is a virtue. Isn’t it? For artists?

We asked some experienced artists–as well as some patrons of the arts–a series of questions about honesty and artmaking. Do you find it risky or difficult to be honest in your own art? If so, what risks do you face? Where and when do conflicts arise? What do you do about them? What do you see as an artist’s responsibility in balancing what he or she desires to communicate versus what the audience wants, expects, or needs to hear?

Here are some excerpts from their thought-provoking replies.

Rose Reynoldson:

In writing fiction and/or poetry, I always encourage writers to be transparently honest in their writing. When we hope to conceal or not reveal some true incident or thought, it’s like a girl who goes to the doctors and says, “My friend thinks she’s pregnant. What should she do?” And the doctor says, “Let me examine you and see if you are really pregnant.”

That is, the reader senses such subterfuge and tries to psyche the writer out to determine what the truth is. But if we are gut-level honest, the reader gets a jolt of impact and experiences—perhaps even understands personally—what is written about and doesn’t consider the writer at all.

It’s like the eel in the depths of the ocean that escapes possible predators by emitting light, thus blinding its pursuer. By honesty we escape readers’ trying to read us instead of our stories/poems.

—Rose Reynoldson is a published poet and taught imaginative writing at Seattle Pacific University for many years. She now lives in Wenatchee, WA.

Clint Kelly:

When King David was at his spiritual height, he was deepest in confession. The power of Schindler’s List is that it does not look away from man at his worst. The glory of the Cross is that the Creator, bloodied and dying, hangs there in your face. In all of these examples, Redemption comes on the heels of “defeat” and is all the more beautiful and desirable because of the struggles that occasioned it. Find a venue where your honesty works. It may require you to switch mediums or to leave familiar country for parts unknown. Time is short. Make your move.

—Clint Kelly is a published author of novels, non-fiction books, and journalism.
He is also copywriter and publications coordinator for Seattle Pacific University.

Scott Nolte:

One of my actors is playing a character that swears – in a play at a different theatre! I got phone calls from well-meaning Christians telling me to rein him in. The actor’s risk in telling the Truth, is that Bad People talk Bad (like fallen creatures). Any artist willing to point out the fallenness of our society (and its need for Redemption) will run the risk of his brethren’s judgment, since many have blotted out their own pre-redemptive memories, words, actions. What they were redeemed from is anyone’s guess!

I have Ps. 37:3 (NASB) on my screensaver. If an artist truly “dwells in the land, and cultivates faithfulness” he knows his community and is known by them (both are known by God). His work is less suspect because it comes out of love, respect, connectedness, faith, trust, grief, compassion and knowledge. If we were less preoccupied by “Our Art, Vision and Giftedness”, and more cognizant of people we see/touch/smell/vote with, our voices might be heard far beyond our wildest dreams.

I have a long term vision for my audience. I’m praying that as they know us they’ll want to maintain a relationship of trust and discovery. I can’t tell them all my thoughts or expose all my styles today, any more than I should teach my nine year old welding. It’s not safe, yet. The artist’s relationship with a viewer/reader/audience member is like a cross between a tour guide and a discipler. We can point things out, but we must know our community well enough to be sure they see just a hair more than they wanted to.

-Scott Nolte is an actor and director of Seattle’s nationally-acclaimed Taproot Theatre.

Bob Briner:

I am not sure what I do in writing should be considered art. It seems to me to be more of a craft. I wish I could write artistically, but I see myself as more of a journeyman.

However, questions of honesty and its costs do come up. Recently, I did a column for a national magazine in which I praised a small college and its students for stepping out on a big national stage to represent Jesus and the Gospel. A part of the story seemed to me to be that these students came from a tiny, very unattractive town(a Nazareth) but still performed brilliantly in a very cosmopolitan undertaking. The problem was that I seemed to offend more people with my comments about the unattractiveness of their town than I encouraged by my praise of the quality of the service they performed. Honesty has its price.

-Bob Briner is the author of Roaring Lambs, a book of interviews
with Christian artists that are influencing cultures around the world.

Reverend Michael Kelly:

“Cut the baby in half!” That graphic command of absolute brutality came from the wisest man who ever lived.

Certainly only a few truths are more urgent and fundamental than which womb that child came from and whose breast he would suckle at. Truth is easily lost in unverifiable testimony. The intense nature of King Solomon’s famous case compounded the confusion and raised the stakes. He certainly had the authority to carry out his order, but it is apparent that he also had the wisdom to know he would never need it.

The artist has been given a similar power to reveal truth. But the artist’s power is best used when tempered by wisdom. The wise and powerful artist knows that his pen or her brush can sweep deeply enough to kill, but is more wisely used to simply expose us that we may either live better or die a bit more on our own. This art does not leave us unchallenged or un-molested by truth, it simply leaves us room to find the hope and life that truth always brings, even when that truth is stark and brutal.

My hope as a pastor and as a Christian is that art by Christ’s followers has the power to expose dark places and the wisdom to leave those newly illuminated souls a place to live in the light of that truth.

—Rev. Michael Kelly, Green Lake Presbyterian Church, Seattle

Bryan Rust:

When writing lyrics or poetry, I often find myself using fictional situations or characters to describe an emotional state of mind. Any time someone delves into fiction, there is a danger of hiding behind “fuss and nonsense”. I have to take care that there is an experiential truth at the heart of every piece of verbal camouflage. This truth has to be reflected in the place of choice names and character names, in the choice of evocative words and phrases.

Occasionally, the best way to say something is to state it as plainly as possible. However, there is a tendency towards penny-plain literalness in most late 20th century writing. I would like to see more writers (myself included) push themselves to use language in new and unexpected ways. Greater artistic risks must be taken to get to the core of communicating universal truths.

— Singer/songwriter Bryan Rust recently completed his second independent release “Immaculate Misconception”.

Michael Demkowicz:

It is always a risk to be honest in my art. My ego comes in for a continuous thrashing. The work consistently shows me — and others — with embarrassing frequency, how little I know and understand about what I am doing after twenty years. Both my seeing and my craft aspire to transcendence and excellence, but the reality is too often merely adolescent and mediocre. As a photographer, I am not merely exhorted by, but bound by the William Carlos Williams dictum: “No ideas but in things.” The things I explore with my camera may prove stale to some, controversial to others, since the medium precludes direct statement. Others’ opinions may help, but too often they distract. Sometimes they may lead to conflict. All I can do is listen carefully, note what rings true, check my motives, and keep on working. Aspiring to transcendence and excellence is a tall order, but I agree with John Ciardi when he asks: “Why go to art for anything but the hugest and most lovingly involving difficulties? Why die in a puddle when there are oceans to drown in?”

— Michael Demkowicz is a professional photographer in Portland, Oregon.