Making a home for alternative arts

Passages in early drafts of my novel What’s Left ran the risk of becoming manifestos for certain strands of the fine arts. Here’s one Cassia ponders as she considers her father’s work:

In the period he spent between college and moving here, he falls into a rhythm of settling down into his own humble life and looking sharply at what’s right in front of him, no matter how chaotic and confusing his quest for amorous companionship is going. He’s still ambitious, mind you, with lofty goals. But he’s also deeply wounded and trying to recover, however furtive the pathway appears, but I’d say that he’s been opened and becoming more sensitive to discovery. In that way, everything is new, seen for the first time. High on his priorities is a knowledge that a true artist has to discover a voice – and that means focusing on some smaller scale, no matter how bad that pun is for a photographer. Well, Manoula would share that need to focus – as a violinist, she stays classical rather than veering off into jazz or folk, and even there she has the pieces she works on repeatedly. As for a signature, some say it’s a Gypsy fire.

So just what is his signature?

In that period right after college, he’s baffled. Everything’s changing. He just has to keep doing whatever he’s doing and hope a message comes clear.

In fairness, few newspaper photographers push that hard. They just want to get good shots in crisp focus and deposit their skimpy paychecks. For Baba, though, something else is percolating. It’s not just another baseball game he’s shooting – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime contest.

Look close and you can see a signature touch in his work all along – something crystalline, abetted by impeccable work in the darkroom, as he investigates whatever’s in front of him. Maybe it’s basic chemistry taken in a fresh direction.

Every true artist – and I have no doubt Baba is one – is drawn to individuals to admire and perhaps emulate. For American photographers, Ansel Adams would be a given. Edward Steichen, well, you can fill in the rest. Looking through his papers, though, I’m surprised to find Francesca Woodman and Sarah Moon among those who capture his imagination. If anything, I’d say their work is the antithesis of his. Theirs are filled with fantasy, even ghosts, decay – so much appears out of focus or fragmentary, even merely suggestive. They evoke history, while he celebrates a present moment.


Cassia’s a smart kid, but you can bet she never would have spoken like that. Strike one! Even in her 20s, she wouldn’t have. Strike two! It really is too much of a curveball for the story. Strike three, and it’s out!

The tone, especially, is way off.

Elsewhere, though, she does observe that her father had his own signature style.

Tell me of a visual artist you greatly enjoy. What do you find most inspiring? If you’re a visual artist yourself, what are your own goals? What do you want to stand out in your work? What are your favorite subjects?

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