April 23, 2020

The Chaos Within – Strength in Vulnerability with Leah Cirker-Stark

by joeyphoenix

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Note: The Chaos Within Podcast is trying to become more Accessible! Scroll to the end of this page to find the audio transcript.

Leah Cirker-Stark, aka Leviathan, of Leah C-S Photography joins Joey on the podcast to talk about queer culture, finding strength in vulnerability, and how moving through trauma can be turned into art. 

Leah Cirker-Stark, also known as Leviathan, is a non-binary Somerville, MA-based photographer, artist, musician, teacher, and aspiring puppeteer. They are also the owner of Leah C-S Photography and a professional faerie with Moonrise Fae. 

A rare photo of Leah and Joey in the wild
Leah does pet photos too!

An alum of Lesley University in Boston, Leah’s photography style burgeoned as a pre-teen under the guidance of their wedding photographer dad and has developed into a style that can be described as candid and beautiful and, pardon the pun, starkly intimate. 

Leviathan’s Live Stream on Creative North Shore


Mentioned in the Podcast

The Trauma Survivors Project
Diesel Cafe
Lesley University
Moonrise Fae

Hosted by Joey Phoenix, The Chaos Within is a podcast celebrating the weird, the wild, and the creative – featuring makers, doers, artists, and oddballs exploring the unknown and tapping into their creative energy.

The Chaos Within is produced by Creative Collective and is available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

The Logo was designed by Anton Presents, the intro music is by Paul Senn (psenn@thetau.io) using the Theta-U Creative Circuit System, and the outro music by Chris Wilson Sound using one of Joey’s maternal Grandmother’s haunted music boxes.


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Audio Transcript

Joey Phoenix 0:05
The Chaos within is a podcast celebrating the weird, wild, and the creative, featuring makers, doers, artists, and oddballs. Exploring the unknown and tapping into the creative energy. The intro music has a pulse, and the outro music is by Chris Wilson Sound.

In the beginning, there was chaos. I’m your host Joey Phoenix.

Joey Phoenix 0:29
This podcast contains a language that is not safe for work because it features adults living in a vibrant and sometimes frustrating world.

Joey Phoenix 0:39
Leah Cirker-Stark, also known as Leviathan, is a non-binary Somerville, Massachusetts based photographer, artist, musician, teacher, and aspiring puppeteer. They are also the owner of Leah CS photography, and a professional fairy with Moonrise Fae, an alum of Lesley University in Boston, Leah’s photography style bergeon does it preteen under the guidance wedding photographer dad, and has developed into a style that can be described as candid and beautiful. And pardon the pun, starkly intimate. They joined us on the podcast to talk about queer culture, embracing your inner person, and how moving through trauma can be turned into art. Welcome, Leah.

Leah Cirker Stark 1:17
Welcome to you!

Joey Phoenix 1:19
Thank you. I feel very welcome.

Joey Phoenix 1:22
So this podcast is all about creative process. And I have been an admirer of your work since 2012, when we met on Craigslist. You were casting for a portrait project about basically raw gender fuckery… I don’t even know what the product was about exactly. But the point was to ask people intimate details about their inner workings and then photograph them immediately afterwards.

So we met up at Diesel Cafe in Somerville, and you asked me questions about my deep dark secrets, and then have me write about them in a journal that you wrote. thought that we were photographing that day and you’re like, nope, this is just a prequel. We’ll come back next week to try this again. And it shook me in a beautiful way. And I just love the way you think. And I’ve always admired the results of that. So I want to hear what goes into the way you think and how you make art.

Leah Cirker-Stark 2:16
Yeah, I mean, I love photography, because it’s a way of bringing intention to things. And I think I, I already kind of saw in photos before it became a part of how I live my life and like going to art school and just thinking about, like, how can I delve deeper into things. My senior thesis project was called photography teaches me to see you. And it’s just about like, I want people to feel seen and to create the space for people to just be their full selves. Like, especially with the trauma project. Like I think a lot of us who’ve experienced trauma or grief, there’s kind of a This expectation of like, well, you have to just like, be sad. And then after a while, you’re supposed to just stop being sad, you know, and there’s no clear timeline so and you, you don’t just have to experience sadness. And in fact, that could be really detrimental and just being like, sometimes there’s joy and then there should be a joy in being able to see your whole self and experience that with another person.

Joey 3:25
So the subjects of your portraits… what was some of their responses to seeing the work after you showed it to them?

Leah Cirker-Stark 3:33
Oh, man, it’s kind of mixed. You know, I think when like when I take family portraits, it’s really nice because it’s pretty straightforward. People just be like, oh, wow, I love this. And I’m like, I love that you love this, you know, but it can be a little more complicated. You know, a lot of people I think are saying you made me look beautiful, not just like an aesthetic way but like a more encompassing way, or that they are able to see something in themselves that they haven’t seen for a long time, or just kind of have that, like they can see from my perspective of wanting to be, you know, loving, and let people be full and flawed and being able to see themselves and see ourselves through each other. It’s been really magical.

Joey Phoenix 4:21
One of the things I love best about your work is how raw and vulnerable it is. And like even, I shot with you a number of times now and every time I am just amazed by how much me is present in that.

And so like every person has a universe, but they also have many distinct prismatic layers. And the way you do things by talking to them first and then photographing them, it seems like you’re stripping away a lot of the overlay layers and getting down to what counts.

How did you discover that as a method and like intuitively work with people that way?

Leah Cirker-Stark 5:01

Like I spent a lot of time thinking about how photography is approached, and I think there’s still a lot of this, like, toxic masculinity approach to art that has been around for, I mean, millennia of just like, there is this one objective viewpoint and like you as a photographer, or just a fly on the wall, and like, you’re just kind of observing, but you really do have a presence, I think, and understanding like, where my perspective comes in, and what my feelings and thoughts are, and how I’m representing people is important, because if I’m aware of that, that I’m able to, like, make space for the other person more. And, you know, I want to be a window and I am of course, my own filter, and I want to represent them kindly. And also honestly.

Joey Phoenix 5:53
So photography is just one aspect of like the many, many, many, many things that you do. You also work with puppets you often musician, I guess what I’m interested in is what inspires you to create and like when you get up in the morning, like Why?

Leah Cirker-Stark 6:08
Well, you what you do, and it’s in some way in need. And especially as I’ve kind of settled into adult life and trying to incorporate enough of my creative self, while also having the kind of monotony of just trying to make enough money and go from place to place like, it’s easy to just kind of settle into this gray space of just getting from one thing to another. And then after a while, all this creativity and all this sort of deeper stuff that you’re thinking and processing, like on a daily basis kind of bubbles up. And suddenly I’ll just be like, ah, I need to create something, or I need to do something.

So you know, I think it’s important to be able to maintain that kind of energy and so it into your daily life as a way like your personal creativity and energy comes out and Feels your work work which in turn feels your creative stuff. I don’t know. I feel like I’m I’m irrepressibly colorful.

Leah Cirker-Stark 7:12
I can’t really force myself into a lot of boxes. And I think it’s very important to like, Be true to yourself. And I’m very lucky to be surrounded by people who understand the importance of that. I don’t know if I could, you know, like, give a why to my grand existential like, why do I do what I do, but I think it’s kind of a necessity, you know, and I, I want to be able to take care of my responsibilities while also taking care of my responsibility to myself to create the things that are important in my lifetime.

Joey Phoenix 7:48
So who we are like early influences people that inspired you to start trying to make your own stuff,

Leah Cirker-Stark 7:55
I mean, definitely my dad. He was a way photographer. I mean, he did some weddings like, which is where I kind of got the taste for it at a very young age. But mostly that he just carried his camera everywhere. And like kind of became his keeper, he would he would just wander off if he saw something that he wanted to capture and just get totally engrossed in it. And just watching that process and then see know him when he got his first digital camera or when we got filmed back, being able to see that and like, just seeing something, that looked kind of mundane or whatever it was, become something beautiful, really was important to me. And, you know, just having a family that supported and appreciated my creative input, like I’m very lucky to have that safe space to explore that, you know, and a lot of folks aren’t encouraged from young age to just kind of express without any particular agenda.

Joey Phoenix 9:01
That’s really beautiful to have that nurturing and nourishing environment with which to explore your curious and wild side. And I remember you telling me stories about your, your wild adolescence of roaming about the woods and all the things that you have become as a result of that wandering.

You and I both identified as non binary and like being queer artists and it definitely speaks to why we do things the way we do and like maybe that’s more colorful, maybe that’s more vulnerable.

But I think a lot of the reason I make things is because I have to express something through visuals that I can’t really express through words quite as easily. And I think with your work as well, like you translate these deep emotional difficulties of humans that you photograph into a piece of art that even they can acknowledge as an expression of their stuff, and you do it for yourself too. I’ve seen your self portrait work where you just have a conversation with the viewer about what you’re doing.

Leah Cirker Stark 10:01
I mean, the way that all of us learn from a young age is just by playing and experimenting. And I think that I have kind of a like, childlike mind in that way. But like, I have a very spaghetti philosophy, where do you just like throw something in the wall and see if it sticks. I don’t want to just be like, polished and perfect all the time.

And that it’s important to me to be vulnerable and imperfect. And, like, having Leviathan as my performance persona is like very much myself. But it’s it’s performative enough that I can just kind of get into this other mode and be like, you know, Leviathan is the state of mind that I’m in where I’m just like, I’m just going to create I’m going to flow and just see what happens and people usually join me in that and it’s really fantastic.

Joey Phoenix
How did you come up with that name?

Leah Cirker-Stark
Um, it was like a little inside joke. Actually, I was on a service trip in New Orleans when I was like 15, which was a really important experience to me, like, I changed my name to Eva in high school, and my given name is Leah, and obviously, I’ve switched it back since then.

So my friend was like, oh, Leah Eva. It’s like LEva. And he was like, Oh, it’s like Leviathan. And I was like, that’s great. And it just really stuck with me, like, as sort of a small person who expresses, like, a fair amount of cuteness as because that’s just sort of how I like to be, you know, just like have fun and be vulnerable in that way. Like, people can underestimate me sometimes, you know, as a woman perceived person as well. So it’s very important to me to just feel like I have this you know, Leviathan is like the, the beast that exists down below that comes up from the depths in this period of great change. So it’s like, my kind of inner subconscious or my inner self and the things that want to come up from deep inside and are just like, big and kind of all inspiring, and just like Take over and create stuff. So it’s just kind of stuck with me. And it’s an interesting way to gauge how people think about me. Because if I say, Oh, my name is Leviathan, like you’re a little small for Leviathan, like, on the outside, maybe but like you never, you never know until you get to know somebody.

Joey Phoenix 12:18
Absolutely. small but very, very, very mighty.

So what are some of the challenges I think that you have faced? And because like, I look at you now and you’re like, you seem like a fully evolved brilliant rainbow, queer human who just like, from the outside has their shit together. And I feel like that may not be the case. But like, what are some of the things that you’ve overcome personally, because it definitely I think like, our demons help shape our selves. And like even if we are perceived as strong, there’s a whole lot of other stuff underneath that’s kind of like supporting that. So what Some of the things that you think have been your personal like achievements, but like with your own self and with your own demons, if you don’t mind me asking.

Leah Cirker-Stark 13:08
Yeah, no, I mean, I don’t at all something I think about a lot. And I think that having my partner in the last year has been really helpful in that because I, I get stuck in a cycle of like, you know, I’m self employed, and I deal with chronic illness and, you know, maintaining my mental and physical health. And it’s tricky to find enough time and energy to feel like I’m really on top of my work work stuff. And that’s something that I’m like, Oh, I have to prioritize. So if I spend all day most days working on my work, work stuff. By the time it gets to be, you know, when I have any free time, I’m just like, I don’t have the energy to create things and feeling like I’ve been in this continuous pattern of creating some things here and there. But you know mostly just trying to focus on adulting and doing a decent job at adulting, which is very difficult, you know, with a jumpy mind.

Like, I have trouble with forgetting things and just having things fall through the cracks sometimes. And then like, by the time it gets to, like, you know, if I’ve set aside some time to work on music, or whatever, I’m like, I feel so terrible, like, I’m so responsible, and I, I never do my creative stuff, and I’m selling myself short. And what does this mean for myself as a human being, and like, my time on this earth, and then I just, you know, it’s hard to like, get into the flow of songwriting or, like, learning about the technical aspects of songwriting, which is a huge hurdle as well. So break me out of that cycle. It’s like I just want to focus on creating and feeling good about creating and give myself credit for every little bit that I do. And that will free me up to actually do the things I want to do instead of just like feeling guilty.

Joey Phoenix 14:57
So this is a final Well, not the final final question, but one One of the ones is that you just have this ability to just keep going. And like you did check in with yourself a lot, but like, what sort of words of encouragement do you have for people that are completely overwhelmed by the situation? And then say to them,

Leah Cirker-Stark 15:15
I mean, I think I mean, I can speak about my, my own experience and how, you know, it’s both unique to me and kind of universal, like, it’s important to just keep the ball rolling. You know, it’s like a, it’s just like playing with a balloon, you just gotta like, keep it in the air sometimes. And also know when to pause, you know, because if you want to be putting yourself towards something that matters, like find something you care about, that you want to do, put yourself towards that and then push yourself towards the next thing, but also, if you just like, keep going and going and going and going, you’re going to run out of energy, you know, and that definitely, I do crash sometimes.

So I don’t know. I think it’s like a time to like celebrate yourself and the things you can about what you can do and take those, whatever resources you have, and try and make the most of them. And we have a bit of, I mean, everyone has a different circumstance, but we have a bit of a unique opportunity of like, you can’t really go anywhere. So you might as well take this sort of extra time and do something with it, you know. And it’s, again, like, it’s not good to put that pressure on yourself to be like, I have to be creative all the time. And I have to, like, be this ultimate artist and just push myself so hard that I create and create. So just being able to find a balance and just doing things for the enjoyment of them and being able to keep some emotion forward to something you care about, you know, yeah.

Joey Phoenix 16:46
So where can people find out more about you, and what you do and support your art?

Leah Cirker-Stark 16:52
It’s a good question. I mean, for my professional stuff, I have my website, which is just Leah C-S photography. I mean, if you look up Leah CS Photography you’ll find a connection to all my stuff on my personal Facebook page usually has links to all my things. But I’m also happy for people to reach out to me individually just the leahcsphotography@gmail.com

Joey Phoenix 18:33
Thank you so much for joining us today you are wonderful.

Leah Cirker-Stark
You’re wonderful.

Joey Phoenix 18:41
The Chaos Within is produced by Creative Collective. Creative Collective connects creativity, community, and commerce across the North Shore. As a collective of creative professionals, small businesses, organizations, and individuals. They coordinate a series of events traditional and non traditional marketing initiatives, resources and buy practices to define why creativity matters in all aspects of life.

In the beginning there was chaos. Then you make it yours.

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