Sam Kirk: The Purpose Of My Work Is To Get People To Open Their Minds

Introduce yourself

Hey everyone, my name is Sam Kirk. I was born and raised in the Southside of Chicago, and I am a multidisciplinary artist.

When did you first start getting involved with art?

I mean, I’ve drawn since I was a kid. In high school though is when I started taking art more seriously. Around sophomore year, I didn’t realize at the time, but I was using art as a way to communicate about my identity and figuring out how to process my feelings about being queer. Creating art was a journal for me and communication device…


As you grew up, you landed a career in advertising. After 10 years of being in the industry, you ended up leaving the industry to pursue your art career full time. What ended up leading to that transition?

It was a combination of things. I was working in advertising and I had been part of a rotation program where they picked six account executives to rotate through each discipline. At the end of that program, I was considered an integrated marketing specialist. This was around the time digital started to become a big thing and I found myself in a position where I was doing reverse mentoring. I was teaching many of my supervisors how to think about using social media. Over time, I became more of a “hybrid”, where I was doing creative, account, and strategy. When I asked for a raise or for a change in direction, there wasn’t a whole lot of traction on that. The switch from my career in advertising basically came about because one, I wasn’t as challenged anymore, and two, I didn’t feel like I was getting paid fairly. My art career was starting to pick up and I was offered two huge art commissions in 2010 that put me in a great position to choose which career I wanted to focus on. I chose art.

What were the first gigs that you got?

I stopped painting for several years and after a long hiatus, I picked it back up in 2008. In 2009 I was listed as one of 12 artists to watch in Chicago and that came with good press. The following year, I was awarded two huge commissions. One was for 15 large-scale pieces for a music venue and the other was to design a home from the ground up for a client that I had previously. I knew that the second project was going to take a couple years just based on her style, and that gave me the opportunity to leave my job and see where this all takes me.

Over these past 8 years, did you ever think of going back to getting a job?

Nah, not really. I think in the first two to three years I did. It was really tough. I didn’t prepare before I made the leap so I was setting up a business while running a business. Trying to balance studio time and high profile clients. From the start, I worked with big brands so I had to deliver. Over the years I’ve learned that it’s really all about creating regularly, strong clients, changing some rules, and making sure that you’re doing the work that you enjoy. I’m at a point now where I don’t have to take certain commissions anymore just because they’re paying the bills.

Looking back over these eight years, what was that first project that you realized you could really do art as a career?

I’d say the biggest project was for Guinness. They took me on the road for three years. That project was part of the reason why I moved to New York. Freddie Baez loved my artwork and once he found out I had an advertising background he wanted to talk with me. He kept pitching me a few different things, but I kept denying him for my own reasons. But one time, he approached me with a project and I really enjoyed it because it combined my backgrounds in interior design, marketing, and art.

And then what project meant the most to you?

That’s hard. I’d say though it was this project that I started in 2013. I was using my marketing and art background to work with nonprofits. I create artwork that helps them communicate what they’re trying to do. For me, a lot of my work is about how am I reaching people and how is my message helping to change minds. And that comes from growing up mixed race and queer in a segregated city. To this day I don’t feel understood in my city. I constantly have to educate people about what it means to be mixed and queer. The purpose of a lot of my work is to get people to open their minds a little more and I think that project was the thing that got me to look at the content of my practice in a different way. It’s the reason why a mural like Weaving Cultures in Pilsen has a transgender Latina. If I didn’t start doing that work with the nonprofits I don’t think that I would’ve gotten over that uncomfortable point of using my identity as a way to talk about certain topics. I had to sit down and talk to people about aids, HIV, homelessness, the sex trade, and other challenging topics, then figure out how to make a piece of work that is digestible and gets people to care and buy it and hang it on their walls.


Recently you and Sandra Antongiorgi were able to re-do the Logan Square train stop mural, which was all about bringing culture back into Logan Square…

That mural was important to me, but I think what’s more important is if the people that reside there now take a minute to understand the mural and what it’s about. To me, if my work isn’t connecting with people and if it’s not making them take another step then it’s just another beautiful picture and that’s not the work that I’m trying to create. More than anything, what I want people to see with that mural is to take a minute to understand each other’s differences. The saddest thing in Chicago is that we don’t take the time to understand each other’s cultures and that is keeping us in these boundaries and boxes. In a neighborhood like Logan Square, you can go up to half of the people that live there now and ask them if they know who the Young Lords are and they would say, “who”?


2017 was a big year for you, 3 museum exhibits, a 3arts award, and 3 “Year of public art” projects. What’s one thing you want to push yourself to accomplish in 2018?

The biggest thing I want to push myself to accomplish is to have an international gig and more national exposure. I want to branch out more, to cities I haven’t been or visited in a while. I’m interested in collaborating with other artists, new perspectives I guess.

When it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?

I would like to be remembered as an artist that used their work to help desegregate Chicago.

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