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Sam Kirk Works To Break Through Chicago’s Barriers (2017)

Written by on February 16, 2023

Born and raised in Chicago, Sam Kirk is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist focusing on identity politics and culture. Through her art, she continually works to destroy the walls of segregation throughout Chicago.


“Since my work is entirely about celebrating culture, and showcasing identity, I jumped around a lot and visited other neighborhoods outside of my own… That really shaped the work that I produced today.”

– Sam Kirk

Sam Kirk has a few public murals throughout the city of Chicago, primarily commenting on current social issues surrounding women of color, communities of , and the LQBTQIA+ community in hopes to spark a dialogue in public spaces. 

“Even though Chicago’s segregated, and sometimes the mindset is that way as well, people here are very open to learning and to listening,” Kirk said. “And when I put that work out in the street, and put it up in the public space, I’m always appreciative of the dialogue and the conversation that happens from it.”

Since Kirk last sat down with Vocalo in 2017, her work has been recognized by arts communities internationally. In 2018, Kirk was the first woman to be invited to participate in the Casablanca street art festival CasaMouja, where she was commissioned to make a mural to celebrate the 35-year connection between Chicago and Casablanca as its sister city. In 2021, Kirk received the Human First Award, hosted by the Center on Halsted, which recognizes the contributions of individuals, businesses and other organizations to Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community. More recently, Kirk co-founded “Our Guild” along with L.M. Rebello, a BIPOC-centered, local web-based artistic collective offering a platform to creators in the Chicago community.

In honor of Vocalo’s 15th anniversary, we’re looking back on some notable archived segments of “This Is what Chicago Sounds Like.” In this segment, recorded in September 2017, we hear from Sam Kirk about her journey as an artist and what inspires her revolutionary work.

Sam Kirk via Instagram, by Tamara Hijazi.

Introduce yourself, and describe your work in a few words.

My name is Sam Kirk. I’m a multidisciplinary artist based in Chicago. I create work to highlight underrepresented communities and to talk about social issues, and to hopefully get people to have more conversations about our differences. And this is what Chicago sounds like. 

Sam Kirk via Instagram, by Quirklyn.

Where in the city did you grow up?

I grew up here, my parents were born and raised in Chicago. I was kind of forced to jump between the different neighborhoods to figure out either things about myself that weren’t obvious in the neighborhoods that I was living in, or to learn things about other people and other cultures. And since my work is entirely about celebrating culture, and showcasing identity, I jumped around a lot and visited other neighborhoods outside of my own. And that really shaped the work that I produced today. A lot of what I do is about talking to people and having those one-on-one experiences, or having group experiences, and then trying to share that visually through my work. And, even though Chicago’s segregated, and sometimes the mindset is that way, as well, people here are very open to learning and to listening. And when I put that work out in the street, and put it up in the public space, I’m always appreciative of the dialogue and the conversation that happens from it.

What are the challenges and the triumphs you associate with Chicago?

Being from Chicago, there’s a huge sense of pride in the people that live here. It’s a big city, but a lot of times it feels like it could be a small town, and that everybody knows each other. It’s very easy to… go out on a weekend and run into a lot of people. So there’s a lot of overlap in the different communities. Living in this city can be challenging with the amount of segregation that’s here. Getting to know each other and to be able to collaborate and cross paths and everything, to accomplish some things can be challenging, because there’s all of these boundaries set up for us. But you see a lot of people that are willing to go beyond those boundaries and break down some of those walls and not necessarily stay in the way that the city was set up, to kind of keep us confined into the areas that… we’re “supposed” to be in. That’s one of the biggest things that I love about Chicago, is the people and how hard they’re really willing to work to make what they want out of their life happen.

Sam Kirk via Instagram, by Lucia Gee Photography.

How has the city shaped you?

The city has shaped me as a person and as an artist in a couple of different ways. As a person, I think it’s made me a very strong woman. And that comes from, not just my family and my upbringing and who I was surrounded by, but also the people in the neighborhood. As a woman of color, things aren’t necessarily very easy for us. It’s not easy, you can’t just… go out into the city and expect things. That’s not how the city is set up. So I’ve been taught how to work extremely hard, and how to make the right connections. And I think that comes from a little bit of… the way the politics are run in this city. But I’m grateful for it, because I won’t sit in a room and just accept anything. And I’ll push… some buttons and I’ll ask some questions to make sure that what I’m trying to accomplish is done. And, as an artist, that’s shaped me. Just because the opportunity here and expectation isn’t like you have to go to school in order to make it. I’m a self-taught artist, and I didn’t… go get a college degree. And, at this point in my career, I’m showing in museums, I’m putting work in kind of hard-to-reach public spaces. And that’s a combination of opportunity that I think the city has given me, but then also the hard-working, working class kind of mindset, where it doesn’t have to follow a specific tradition. And we can kind of go outside the boundaries and outside the lines to make things happen.

Mural by Sam Kirk inside the Chicago Public Media office; photo by Michael Liptrot, WBEZ.

What do you love about Chicago?

The Latinx community in Chicago, I think one of the biggest things I love is there’s a lot of loyalty. There’s a lot of camaraderie and people really support each other. In particular, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Humboldt Park lately. I’ve visited the neighborhood my whole life, but, in recent years, I’ve… been spending more time there intentionally. I want to, just to really get to know more about my culture and the people in the city that are part of it, but also because I really respect the unity that exists in that neighborhood, and how they appreciate each other’s differences. It’s one of the neighborhoods in Chicago where I feel very comfortable in my own skin as a multi-racial, queer woman. I am not afraid about… being who I am. And the Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park really embraces… all of my differences and all the things… that are part of who I am, as an individual. So I think, in particular, right now, I really appreciate that part of town. I also appreciate that there’s a lot of respect in tradition and culture in the Latinx community in Chicago, whether you’re in Pilsen, or Little Village or Humboldt Park, Logan Square and Hermosa, even. There’s, for what hasn’t been gentrified, there’s still a lot of representation and people really making an effort to make sure that their culture is seen and heard in many different ways. And I really appreciate that pride and kind of taking that stance and making sure that it’s still alive.

What do you hope is your legacy?

One of the things I want to give back, or that I want to bring to the table, is using art as a tool to get us to think outside of ourselves. And I say that because, being a queer woman, it has definitely been a challenge to be in certain neighborhoods. And there’s a tendency to focus on specific issues, but we need to really unite and to make sure that we recognize everybody that’s part of our community. And I hope that, with artwork, I can put some stuff in the public space and put some stuff up on the walls that help us to see everyone that’s part of our community and help to make us stronger, and more united. 

And this is what Chicago sounds like.

Keep up with Sam Kirk on Instagram.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Produced and edited by Fyodor Sahknovski

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Written introduction by Omi Salisbury and Morgan Ciocca

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