Morleigh Steinberg’s ‘Tucked In’ captures the quietly courageous interior world of her daughter’s cancer journey

By Lisa Beebe 

Steinberg’s daughter’s tiny
world of toys
Photo by Morleigh Steinberg

“Tucked In,” a new photography exhibit at Venice’s ARCANE Space, offers a peek into a world that isn’t often documented.

Each image in the gallery captures an arrangement of small toys and dolls, many of which are tucked into tiny beds where they appear to be resting or reading. In other scenes, the toys appear to be taking care of each other—a small stuffed animal pushes the stroller of a tiny piglet in one, a coterie of My Little Ponies keep each other company at a makeshift table set with coins as dinner plates in another. These detailed, imaginative set-ups look like something a child might make on her bedroom floor—and that’s exactly what they are.

Mom, photographer and dancer-choreographer Morleigh Steinberg (who’s done creative consulting for U2) captured these vignettes of a child’s playthings during a tumultuous period in her family’s life. When Steinberg’s daughter Sian was
7 years old, she came home from school one day too tired to play and was soon diagnosed with T-cell leukemia. As Sian went through cancer treatment, Steinberg discovered that her daughter was setting up little scenes with her toys. She says, “I walked into her room and I’d see them tucked into different corners. She would do them in all sorts of places like under the bed or under a couch.”

Steinberg believes that creating these little worlds gave her daughter a feeling of control over what she was experiencing. She says, “I think for me, it was a validation that she was taking care of herself in a way that I might not be able to take care of her. It was comforting for me to see that despite the very disruptive world that our family was living in, she could manage it by doing this, making these little creations, these miniature perfectly-formed little universes.”

Steinberg started photographing Sian’s creations as a way to document them, and continued to do so during the three years that her daughter was in treatment. Today, Sian is a healthy 21-year-old. Her mother never expected to share these photos with the public, but she is doing so in the hopes that “Tucked In” will help other people—especially parents of children with cancer—understand that children find ways to cope. (The exhibit’s May 9 opening doubled as a benefit for Cancer Support Community Los Angeles, which provides free counseling, education and programming for individuals and families impacted by cancer.) Steinberg says, “I want to encourage people to come with their kids or by themselves. We’ve got some baskets of things, so people can play. They can make worlds.
I want it to be interactive.”

So Steinberg installed lavender carpet in the gallery to match the carpet of Sian’s bedroom floor in the photos, and she intentionally hung some of the photos low, where kids can see them.

“I didn’t want to put them all in a line like a formal art exhibit,” she says. “They have to be playful, they have to be kind of patch-worked together, like Sian’s work.”

Steinberg’s choices have the desired effect. The gallery space feels as cozy and colorful as the scenes Sian made with her toys. If you want to get down on the floor, and tuck a Barbie or a troll doll into bed, you’re welcome to do so. Take a photo while you’re at it.

“Tucked In” is on view through May 26 at ARCANE Space, 324 Sunset Ave., Unit G, Venice. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Visit arcanespacela.com for more info.

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