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Former Filmmaker Shares Passion for Women’s History

(The Times photo by Betsy Reason)
Leah Leach is executive director of Gal’s Guide Library, the first women’s history lending library in the United States, and will curate a special art exhibit for Women’s History Month with an opening-night reception on March 4 at Nickel Plate Arts in downtown Noblesville
Want TO GO?

What: “Boosting the Signal: Women’s History in Art” showcases the world of female-identifying artists as well as artists whose work celebrates women. More than 24 pieces of photography, painting and sculpture by 15 artists are in the show and available for purchase.

When: Opening night, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, including a celebrity appearance by Klaire Lockheart, named Miss Art World South Dakota and host of History of Modern Art, with two art pieces on display Friday only. A special reception will also take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on March 11, with artists available to meet and greet. Regular show hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through March 26.

Where: Gal’s Guide Library, Nickel Plate Arts campus, Stephenson House, 107 S. Eighth St., Noblesville.

Info: galsguide.org

Just visit the Gal’s Guide Library, and Leah Leach will tell you great stories that will inspire just how interconnected we all are.

The Noblesville resident — who for a decade made award-winning independent films using her stage name, Kate Chaplin — two years ago founded the first women’s history lending library in the United States.

This month, she is curating a special Women’s History Month art exhibit that opens Friday night — with a reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. — at the nonprofit library’s home on the second floor of the Nickel Plate Arts’ Stephenson House on Eighth Street in downtown Noblesville.

“Gal’s Guide is all about shining a spotlight on women of history, and we know not everyone is an avid reader, so showcasing artwork is another way to share the joy of learning about someone new or seeing historical women in a new light,” Leach said.

“Boosting the Signal: Women’s History in Art” will showcase the world of female-identifying artists as well as artists whose work celebrates women, she said. Opening night will feature a celebrity appearance by Klaire Lockheart, named Miss Art World South Dakota and host of History of Modern Art, with two art pieces on display Friday only. A special reception will also take place during the same hours on March 11.

Women’s History Month is an annual declared month that highlights the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society.

Leach started the library after two years of a podcast called “Your Gal Friday,” a student-friendly podcast with more than 50 episodes. Each week, Phoebe Frear and Leach would research a woman of history and share in a “PG-13 friendly way that educators could use” in classrooms or as supplemental material.

Many times, they found a book that was mentioned in research but was out of print and out of circulation. Knowing they were only one podcast, they wondered about other podcasters and researchers seeking these books. “Who’s keeping an open space for these books?” Leach wondered.

So in 2019, she brought to the board of directors of Gal’s Guide the idea of changing the mission to opening a library to protect, preserve and share women’s history books.

In 2020, Gal’s Guide Library opened to the public with 1,500 books, which came from donations, used book sales and money from a grant from the Open Meadows Foundation in New York. Gal’s Guide Library has since grown to 5,000 books, thanks to donations and “Patreon Peeps.”

“We take donations of books of any kind and sort them out,” Leach said. “What fits our lending collection are books written by women or about women,” she said.  They’re seeking mostly nonfiction. However, whatever books don’t fit in the collection will be sold to raise money for the library or to give to little libraries around town, Indy Book Project or Goodwill, she said.

Gal’s Guide Library works just like a public library. Library cards are free. Borrowing books is free. Books may be borrowed, or checked out, for 21 days and can be renewed four times. There are no late fees. And for convenience, there is a dropbox out front, at 107 S. Eighth St., for book returns and book donations.

So, why the Nickel Plate? The Gal’s Guide Library came to Nickel Plate Arts after looking for a home for a long time and talking to mayors and city leaders all around Indianapolis. “Noblesville Mayor Chris Jensen scheduled a meeting with me and with help from his assistant we started talking to Nickel Plate Arts,” Leach said. Nickel Plate had a small space open up. “Nickel Plate was the perfect location at the perfect time of our evolution,” she said.

I happened to meet Leach recently at the Gal’s Guide Library, where we stopped in to visit my 15-year-old daughter’s former fifth-grade teacher, Melissa Jones, who was leading a Girls Positivity Club meeting, where they were doing crafts.

Becoming a “Studio Artist” at Nickel Plate allowed for low-cost rent with a built-in community of creative people and events, Leach said. “We consider the Gal’s Guide Library a literary art within the NPA campus.”

Leach while as a library, there aren’t too many awards, but the library’s student-friendly podcast did win “Best Family Podcast” by Indy PopCon. Also, Gal’s Guide Library’s Spirit & Place event in 2019 was nominated for an Award of Awesomeness. That panel was a collaboration with Starbase Indy and Center for Inquiry.

So how is money raised to pay the rent? Money is raised through donations. Patreon (a membership platform that makes it easy for artists and creators to get paid by subscribers), grants, book sales and special programs. Gal’s Guide Library offers a Golden Book for those who donate more than $500. “The Golden Books are hand painted and include the donor’s name.”

Leach said, “They (donors) are welcome to autograph the cover of the Golden Book, and they are welcome to wear the gold crown that rests atop the books when they are in the library.” she said. The Patreon donations also help people earn, over time, their Golden Book.

As executive director of Gal’s Guide Library, Leach said it’s her “full-time job.” For the first five years of the organization, she was not paid, by choice. “I have worked hard to create a situation where I can do the most good and be rewarded with good karma instead of money. I’m not a person who values money, I value time and helpfulness I can put into a community,” she said. She wants the donations to stay in the organization. Her goal is to keep the doors open and the rent paid. This year, for the first time, the board decided she would be paid a very small salary.

Each month, the library spotlights books in the collection. In February, during Black History Month, the library focused on some of her “favorite gals,” including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who invented rock ‘n’roll, and Dr. Tereai Trent, who was Oprah’s favorite guest and started a school for girls in Zimbabwe after getting her doctorate in the United States. In March, Gal’s Guide Library spotlights “Artists Gals,” including a collection of Judy Chicago books. “Her assistant personally dropped off nearly 300 books that she had collected that featured Judy’s art and artists around her,” Leach said.

Gal’s Guide Library has regular book club meetings on the last Thursday of each month on Zoom, a video-conferencing platform that connects people around the nation and the world. In February, the club read “On Juneteenth” by Annette Gordon-Reed. In March, they’re reading “Georgia,” by Dawn Trip.

Does Gal’s Guide Library attract author visits? “When it comes to book signings, the authors come to us,” Leach said. Hamilton County Historian David Heighway had a book signing at the library on his book tour. As did USA Today award-winning author Nan Reinhardt. As book tours return nationally, since COVID, Leach expects to have more author visits by local and national authors. “We have asked (Australian) comedian Hannah Godsby to come, just before she broke her leg in Iceland,” Leach said.

There are two podcasts and three audiobooks on Gal’s Guide channels. Besides the already-mentioned “Your Gal Friday” podcast there is a “Gal’s Guide Podcast,” which has more than 200 episodes with more than 14,000 downloads. “The format is four women get together and each brings to the table one cool woman in history. We talk about her. We drink, we share. It’s like listening to a group of gal-pals talk about amazing women of history,” she said.

On March 13, the first Gal’s Guide anthology — with a diverse collection of stories, memories, inspirations and poems relating to women and women of history — will be released, featuring authors as close as Noblesville and as far away as Ireland and the UK.

There is an event at the library almost weekly, with First Fridays a wonderful time to see the new monthly spotlight. On Saturdays, Gal’s Guide Library offers a craft get-together. There are new podcasts on Mondays and a new audiobook chapter on Friday.

While interviewing Leach, I couldn’t help but ask more about her filmmaking.

“I joke that in a past life, I was a filmmaker,” said Leach, who has produced 18 films for which she has earned 13 awards.

She grew up in Michigan and started making films in high school when she got her first video camera in trade because a friend owed her money.

“Do what helps the community in which you are passionate about. Once you are no longer passionate, and you start to become a person you don’t like, find a new way to help the community that is better in line with the person you want to be.”

– Leah Leach, Gal’s Guide Library executive director

“I didn’t have much use for the money, but the camera I could make music videos with, and so I did,” said Leach, who worked in video stores and movie theaters. “I have mad movie knowledge, and many of my friends don’t want to play movie trivia games with me,” she said.

Later, she worked at Rockfort TV studio, did an internship at Madonna University where she was on a team that made a music video that showed on MTV in the very early hours. She moved to California and attended UCLA until she could no longer afford it. She eventually made her way to Indiana where she decided to reinvent herself and make films.

“I’d say my greatest achievement in my film work is that one of the ladies who started with me as an intern on a short film now works at Netflix,” Leach said. “Awards are awesome, finishing films are a treasure, showing films to an audience is fantastic, but seeing how I gave a person a place to build a resume, learn a skill and take ownership of their life and passion and see them succeed is even better.”

What else? Her husband, Josh, joined the U.S. Army on Sept. 11 in an effort to help his country. The couple was stationed in Georgia. “When we got out of service, we moved to Indiana because I had family here.” They fell in love with an old house in Noblesville in 2009 and have been here ever since. They have two kids, Samantha, a Noblesville High School freshman, and Kami, a Ball State University freshman.

Being a filmmaker, has she met anyone famous?

When living in Los Angeles, the joke is that at every restaurant you meet one producer, three actors and five writers. “It’s a variance on how recognizable they are.”

But she did admit, “My favorite famous people stories could fill a book … Cuba Gooding fell in love with my friend. Wesley Snipes called me ‘lovely’ for helping him out on the Warner Brothers lot. I helped Jada Pinket Smith and Jaden Smith find a whole bunch of wrestling videos. And I nearly ran over Leonardo DeCaprio with my car by a Blockbuster.”

Lastly, any advice? “Do what helps the community in which you are passionate about,” Leach said. “Once you are no longer passionate, and you start to become a person you don’t like, find a new way to help the community that is better in line with the person you want to be.”– Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com