Backseat souvenirs

Photographer Leah Stahl digs up her Artifacts at Dutoit Gallery

photo: ‘Unknown Backseat Specimen 23,’ part of Leah Stahl’s Artifacts series, is on display at Dutoit Gallery through June

By Morgan Laurens

Photographer Leah Stahl is a kindred spirit. I can tell, even before she sets foot inside the café where we’re having our interview. Wearing all black, she flashes me a quick smile and saunters up to the counter, returning moments later with a spice muffin and what looks like a gigantic bowl of coffee.

“Sorry I’m late,” she mumbles into her latte, echoing word-for-word the speech I’d prepared for her on the frantic car ride over. Despite waking up late, I’m, miraculously, already settled on a couch in the back of the café, having plopped there only seconds before she walked in. I can only hope I look cool and collected, like I was born on that couch.

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Leah Stahl’s work looks like it comes from the mind of someone who’s perpetually 10 minutes late for everything. The kind of person who’s OK going to bed with crumbs between the sheets or leaving leaky pens, sticky chocolate parchment, and drained teacups cluttered on the bedside table. The kind of person who probably appreciates a good John Waters’ flick.

“I suppose it’s only appropriate that while shooting a series like this, I sat in dog poop,” a recent Facebook post from Stahl reads. The comment hovers above an image of an artificially colored pink and green candy encrusted with dirt and hair, and embedded with a set of false eyelashes. “Watermelon” isn’t alone in its depiction of the dirty side of life; chewed-up gum, mangled Rice Krispies treats, and a potato chip lanced with the stem of a leaf all figure into Stahl’s Artifacts series showing at the Dutoit Gallery through the rest of June.

“[Artifacts] became a funny little breakthrough that people responded to,” says Stahl of her series, now six years in the making. “I thought it was gross, I thought it wasn’t anything to be taken seriously, and I thought it was nothing at all like I ever do. But it’s kind of funny, and it’s kind of real.”

Beginning the series while in grad school, Stahl notes that Artifacts was a way to address the challenge of integrating art with the messiness of motherhood, then a new experience for her.

“[Artifacts] was a way to look at motherhood without showing any humans, any figures … It was a juggling of the artist and the mom, and never being able to fully separate those two things.”

The objects Stahl chooses to photograph—the food, the foliage, the mystery candy—are pulled from the floor of her car, scraped from under car seats and dug out of crevices. They’re the sort of objects that are dropped on the upholstery during a tantrum or jammed into a corner by sticky-fingered hands—objects every harried mom is familiar with.

“There’s no one who looks at this who’s a mom, and who doesn’t say, ‘Yup, I found that in my couch today,’” Stahl says, pointing to “Unknown Backseat Specimen 7,” a photograph of an amorphous treat with a long black hair curling its way out of the colorful goo.

Stahl’s own children, 3- and 7-years-old when the series began, are now 10 and 14.

“It’s funny how [the photographs] evolve as the kids get older,” Stahl muses. “As the kids grow, the work changes, the things I find change, and then motherhood evolves, too. You can almost put a date on these objects.”

Though the objects unearthed in the Artifacts series would, in most cases, be headed straight for the garbage can, Stahl is quick to point out her discoveries are not necessarily discarded—by either her or her children.

“My daughter, when she was younger, collected the tips that would break off her colored pencils,” Stahl remembers. “She had a whole jar of colored pencil tips. She had a collection of Easter egg shells after they’d been peeled. She collected cicadas, she collected bones, she collected walnuts that squirrels would crack open, and then arranged them neatly.”

“I collect these weird things, and I don’t know what I’ll ever do with them,” she adds with a shrug. “They’re like souvenirs.”

Though the series is an unconventional take on the messiness that often goes hand-in-hand with motherhood, Artifacts has universal appeal. It speaks to the slob in all of us, and the fear of what we’d become without a vacuum or the occasional shower.

“It’s so strange what’s compelling to some people,” Stahl says, scanning her work displayed in front of us on my laptop. A multicolored specimen pops up on the screen, a mysterious amalgamation of food coloring, sugar, and grime—meet “Unknown Backseat Specimen 23.”

The title leads me to believe there must be hundreds of these creatures populating the back of Stahl’s car—and probably mine, as well. Looking around the café, I have to wonder what’s hiding underneath the driver’s seat of the guy in the striped shirt sitting next to us. Or what’s lurking between the seat cushions of the woman in the corner listening to her headphones.

“These things exist because you don’t have time for anything else,” Stahl says, content to accept the messiness of life in both herself and others.

Before she leaves the café and heads back to her vehicle, Stahl wants to set the record straight on one last thing. “I’ve never owned a minivan,” she says, looking at me pointedly. “It’s a Subaru Outback.”

“Not every mom’s car might look like mine,” she continues. “People who are clean, clean their cars. I didn’t.”

Amen.

Artifacts is on display through June at the Dutoit Gallery, 1001 E. Second St. in Dayton. The show is free. For more information, please visit LeahStahl.com or DutoitGallery.com

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Morgan Laurens
Reach DCP freelance writer Morgan Laurens at MorganLaurens@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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