The voices of artists on the front lines.

Copyright © 2002 by Jeffrey Overstreet
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Contact Jeffrey Overstreet at [email protected]

FORUM THREE: The Artist’s Compulsion

from The Crossing, The Compelling Issue, published in Summer 1999

featuring: Alan Brozovich, Nants Iremonger, Carol White Kelly, Scott Nolte, Geoff Pope, Fritz Liedkte, Gary McKibben, Ervin Toucet, Kathy Pritchard, Patricia Emerson Mitchell, Jason Dorsey, and Matthew Winslow.


Some create because they like to play with creative stuff, like a kid with crayons. Others create because they have issues to work out on paper. An artist may, like Michaelangelo, explore the stone to find the figure inside. Another may have a passion to beat that stone into submission until it matches the vision in her head. Some write poetry to see more clearly. Others write poetry for the love of observing its effect on an audience. Some paint to praise God; others, to understand Him; others, to obey him; and others find they don’t think about God at all in relation with their artmaking.

What compels you to create? What are the forces that draw you to your work? Tell us (in 400 words or less, please) why you do the work you do.

Here are some of the anecdotes and reflections they shared with us:


Trying to explain the motivation behind an activity that comes naturally and that I enjoy immensely feels strange to me. I have to remind myself that not everyone feels the natural fit of dancing. Not everyone is at home with it. But for me, the drive to dance, to move to rhythm, is powerful. If the music speaks to me, my inner rhythm longs to reach out and connect. If the lyrical content is something that I feel strongly about, that longing to connect can turn to an ache. There are times when I find myself in a place or situation where I have to exert a conscious effort to not move because it would not be appropriate. When I get to make that connection with the rhythm, all is aligned with the world. It feels like coming home.

Listeners of music might feel one with the music in their minds. Musicians feel it when the music seems to take on a life of its own and instead of them playing the music, the music plays them. They’re in the zone and loving it. Dancers (trained or untrained) listen and respond with their bodies. If you dance, your instrument is your body—for tap dancers, especially your feet. And the music is playing you. Though learning the steps is vital, tap dancing is not about the steps. It’s about the rhythm, the groove, the connection. It is so right. I guess I do it to come home.

––You can find Renee Pinzon “at home” teaching tap dancing at Tim Hickey’s Dance Studio in Kirkland, WA.


Poetry struggles to grasp something of beauty and distill it into words. When I write, I want to capture a moment, to condense it and hold it so that it is mine. Often those moments involve pain and brokenness. I think this is where the ache in poetry comes from—poets look at the world and see that all is not right.

Some Christians would prefer to gloss over brokeness, and focus only on the uplifting. But I don’t see Christ glossing over anything during his time on earth. He spent his whole life among broken, aching people. And while his miracles fixed some external brokeness, his mission was ultimately one of internal, spiritual healing. This requires honesty about what isn’t right in life.

Poetry finds beauty in the brokenness. It unlocks memory and sets free areas of pain. I believe God is honored by the truth and beauty that results.

––Alan Brozovich writes poetry and songs. He teaches
English and journalism at Rosslyn Academy in Nairobi, Kenya.


If you asked me why I play oboe and English horn I might have the audacity to answer as Flannery O’Connor did to a similar question referring to her writing. She responded bluntly, “Because I’m good at it.” If one believes in the Creator, in the One who gives us our gifts and talents, it isn’t arrogance but a statement of truth and, thus, responsibility to say “I am good at it.” If I am good at music, mustn’t I use this God-given talent to the best of my ability? Why would God give such an “unnecessary” and seemingly frivolous gift? We don’t need music to eat or breathe. Why should God bless any of us with artistic gifts? Perhaps because God’s chief end is, as John Piper says, to glorify Himself and enjoy Himself forever. As the Creator of all creators, I believe he values beauty.

He must believe it important. (Certainly His magnificent creation shows us that!)

I can instantly and easily state that one reason I do what I do is because it brings me great joy. There is nothing like the mournful sound of an oboe or English horn. There is something about the painful joy that it brings me. In a poem I described it: a “knife inserted, slowly twisted, steals my soul.” While to some of you that might seem awful, to me it is awe-full.

But any musician might say the same thing I have just said. As a Christian I feel that my music is not merely to satisfy my desire to play, or to satisfy that of the audience. Ideally, it is to glorify God. It is, as well, a way for me to give others a different method of glimpsing God (whether they are aware of it or not!)

I think it all comes down to acceptance of my talent (admitting with a humble and thankful heart that God has given me this gift), obedience to my Lord (pursuing excellence in what I do), and praise to the Creator every time I place a reed between my lips.

––Patricia Emerson Mitchell is English hornist of the San Jose Symphony, principal oboist of Opera San Jose, and a freelancer. She has worked with a wide range of artists and groups––from Pavorotti to The Moody Blues to the San Francisco Opera.


I am compelled to create by two primary impulses: blood and water. By blood I mean my ‘gene pool.’ I am a son, grandson, and great-grandson of artists. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side, Fanny Y. Cory, was a nationally recognized illustrator of children’s books, a cartoonist and a superb watercolorist. (Her daughter, Sayre, inherited those creative juices, but marriage and a snide remark from her brother—”You have talent but no genius!”—dammed that creativity up.) My
father, Jack Dorsey, a brilliant artist but a bungling businessman, was a full-time professional watercolor artist in the seventies and early eighties. I didn’t realize it then—we were the epitome of the ‘starving artist’ family. But it was a fun life! I have photographs of myself painting outdoors at dad’s feet, as serious about my craft as a five year-old could be.

Perhaps an even deeper and more foundational impulse is water: I was born and raised on Camano Island. I am gripped by that place. The dappled colors dancing on the water at sunrise, the dark damp of the pathless woods, the grey mountains framing the glassy Sound, the cry of the eagle and the gull, and the splash of a salmon’s tail as it chases herring have woven themselves into my soul. Painting allows me to recreate this world surrounded by the waters—a world which, as Hopkins said, is “charged with the grandeur of God.”

––Jason Dorsey of Seattle paints with oils and preaches as assistant pastor of GreenLake Presbyterian Church.


Music is, for me, a multi-dimensional form of journaling. It is therapy and release. In a logical, bottom-line-driven world, music gives my soul a chance to express itself, and, sometimes, to be healed through that expression.

The forces that compel me range from anger and frustration to pure joy. Music can be a prayer of thanksgiving, a plea for understanding, or simply a new way of telling a story. Often a confession, music is always a catharsis, and sometimes a prophecy. Anticipating a season of change, I penned “Cocoon”: “Take me to the center, bind me up / Keep me through the winter, bind me up / Wrap me in your hibernation, season of transfiguration…”

Composing and singing are what I do, who I am. Perhaps I understand this now more than ever, having just recovered my piano from its three-year home at Madison’s Café to bring it back to my house where it is more accessible. Not being able to play or write songs (at least, not conveniently) has amounted to an unwelcome vow of silence. My piano has been in my living room for two months now, and I must say, I’m feeling much more myself again.

––Kathy Pritchard is a singer/songwriter and co-founded Madison’s Café, a haven for performing artists and hungry Seattlites.


I was thirteen when my dad, who owned a candy company, received identical Christmas gifts from two distributors, and gave one of them to me. The gift was an Executive Planner. It had monthly tabs and about ten lines to write on each day. I had previously been given journals and diaries, but they didn’t interest me. Dad’s present did, perhaps because it was a Planner just like his.

Soon I was writing about how I nervously shot a free throw over the backboard, how I liked a girl named Liz, how my friend Clay frog-gigged, how many yards I had gained in football games, how God both scared and cared for me. I never showed anyone my Planners and rarely shared anything I had written. The exceptions were love notes and writing in yearbooks. I would take friends’ yearbooks home and spend hours on drafts before committing my ink to the bound pages.

Then in college I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The book intrigued me to the point of envy. How could anyone have gripped me so intensely with his writing? Conrad’s plot and his insight into human nature captured me, but I was mostly seized by his vivid descriptions and the rhythm of the words; with these he took me into the heart of Africa, the heart of Man, the heart of Art!

I also read Melville and Eudora Welty, memorized lines by Milton, Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was fascinated by their details and style, stunned by their perceptions and passion. My professors raved about Shakespeare and Blake. A teammate, while pole-vaulting, could recite lines by T. S. Eliot; another friend had read almost everything by Hemingway. I wrote papers on Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and William Carlos Williams. I nearly worshipped James Joyce and e. e. cummings. And I wanted to write with the same spontaneity, vision, and skill. I was compelled to try. I imitated. I rearranged. I imagined—and created! And I am still compelled at 35 to try to create like the great writers, especially the poets.

––Geoff Pope is an award-winning poet and teacher in Seattle.


Artists should be the most curious observers of people and society. As a theatre artist, I’m interested in the what, why, how, and where of life, and I respond with stories that should be told and heard by people living today. (Why tell a story no one wants or needs?)

I like questions. I like plays that pose questions. Personally, I know about God’s ultimate answers to some of my questions, but rather than impose that on an audience, I look for the script with questions that beg his answer. Jesus’ parables created new questions in the mind of the hearer. Unlike some preachers who ramble on and on with Answers, Jesus placed the responsibility with his audience to personalize, analyze, wrestle with and claim the truth.

––Scott Nolte is the Producing Artistic Director
at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre Company.


I’m about as interested as the next guy in knowing the Why of what I do. I’ve thought much about it, and reasons do surface: incarnation, expression, therapy, embodiment, beauty, yearning, seeking the source, being made in the image of the Creator, love. Such matters are important to consider, and deepening my understanding enriches my life and work. But sometimes I become bogged down by too much pondering. It’s then that I throw up my hands and say, “I dunno! I just like to make things.” And then I go and do so.

––Fritz Liedtke is a photographer and writer in Portland, Oregon.


Long aware of the power of words, late in life I have come to putting them on paper with some intentionality and discipline. That they are in the form of poetry both surprises and delights me, as does the fact that creating this poetry, arduous and prolonged a process though it may be, feeds my soul. Why now, why this medium after all these years, I ask myself. As a child of the Depression raised in a house where money was scarce and love of the written word was palpable, I was as well a young woman of those rather innocent and politically incorrect fifties. I went to college, yes, but my graduation was followed quickly and without question by marriage, children, involvement in church and community. Writing, that gift that had been encouraged by my parents and professors throughout my growing up years, gave way to preschool and PTA’s, Betty Crocker cookbook dinner parties, and desultory book discussions. Only after the comfortable predictability of this life was broken by divorce and the discovery that a family-secret genetic disease had presented in my husband did I wake up and begin to write.

Through the twenty years that he lived with and finally died from Huntington’s, my fountain pen bled ink. Now I wrote down fear, anger and remorse, tears, forgiveness, and reconciliation, courage, laughter, and love. Now I wrote, and will continue to write, as Seamus Heaney describes poetry, “truth told slant.” That slant tells me what I need to know, what I fear to know, and, over and over again, what I long to know, that God’s abiding grace falls indiscriminately over our flawed and blessedly, beautifully ordinary lives.

––Carol White Kelly writes poetry in Seattle.


I have always had a desire/need to “play.” It goes as far back as I can remember. It is play for me. I can still remember what it turned me on as a kid and I get to do the same things now as an adult to hopefully delight other kids. . . grown or otherwise. I do a magic trick where the handkerchief gets stuck on my hand and I can’t shake it off. It is an effect I would have loved as a kid and I always hear at least a few kids cracking up at my antics. I see myself in those kids. That is me as a child. For some reason it is very satisfying to experience this.

For a long time I felt like a “freak” in the Christian circles. Now I don’t really care. My interests have opened doors for witnessing and evangelism. I have always loved hockey. I taught my son and son in law how to play. We have had an effect being a witness to other hockey players even to the point of saying the closing prayer at a marriage where the bride and groom walked out of the marriage ceremony under a “canopy” of upraised hockey sticks. Traditional “safe” Christians would never have had this opportunity. I became interested in performing magic. It opened doors for me working with gangs in Chicago working with David Wilkerson. It disarmed a couple potentially dangerous situations where I was now considered “cool” after performing a couple tricks. It made me welcome where I would have otherwise been considered an outsider.

Playing hockey, juggling and doing tricks are things that I occasionally NEED to do to stay on an even keel. They are like pressure relief valves in my life. I used to apologize for having these needs, but now I come to acknowledge them as “gifts” from God. They are just what I am. To deny these needs is to deny part of who I am.

—Gary McKibben (sometimes called “Professor Gizmo”), is a magician, juggler, and hockey player.


I write because that’s what I enjoy doing. I’m reading John Piper’s Desiring God right now, so I think my answer [to this Forum question] would probably be that in doing so, I take delight in our Lord. Tolkien discusses this in On Fairy Stories, how any creation by an artist is really a sub-creation of the true Creation. When I write, I take delight in being a part of our Lord’s Creation.

—Matthew Winslow is working on novels in Seattle, Washington.