When Chicago-based artist Sam Kirk was 15 years old, she was outed by a teacher at her all-girls private Catholic school. Little did she know that it would someday lead her to find her calling and eventually create a flourishing art business. Or that she would one day become one of the first women to ever participate at CasaMouja, Casablanca’s annual street art festival. Or that she’d eventually have more tools to give back to the black, brown, and queer communities in Chicago and beyond. Back then, she was simply trying to figure out what it meant to be queer and she turned to art to help her out.
“Growing up in the Southside…I didn’t know who to ask questions to or really know how to talk about (being queer)…I used it as a tool to sort through my emotions,” says Kirk.
When it came time for college, though, Kirk opted to double-major in marketing and interior design, and afterward, she took a job in advertising. Art remained a hobby for her, something to destress with, but her days were all about client management and strategy. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, though.
“My friends were so burnt out from designing all day that they would stop painting and doing what they loved. For me…I’d leave work to [go to] my studio and go paint.”
Eventually, Kirk used her own work to replace the art they’d give her to decorate her office. Coworkers began to ask her about the vibrant paintings on her walls and even began to commission work from her. From there, she was able to set up a show and then moved on to galleries.
“It just kind of organically grew in a way that I didn’t expect. I would have never imagined being an artist for a living,” Kirk shares.
The self-taught artist has now been running her own art business for nearly a decade, with no signs of slowing down. Kirk has created incredible murals all over Chicago from Pilsen to Logan Square, as well as in New York and Michigan. She’s worked with a number of major brands, including Guinness, AT&T, Major League Soccer, Don Julio, Adidas, and more. She’s also put some of her interior design background into her work, creating colorful, nontraditional layouts for clients who express an appreciation for her art. And while the art itself is top priority, Kirk credits her ability to run a successful business to her marketing background.
“Having that client management (background) helps me not only understand how to pitch my work and how to talk to clients but also thinking about how they might approach their campaign. If I’m getting a commission to do a mural, that’s one part of it. But in the back of my head, I already know they might want to add on t-shirts or other things. From a professional business standpoint, it’s extremely helpful. The path I took to get here worked out perfectly.”
“My work is completely narrative based. It’s about experiences that I have with other people, and how that impacts my own life experience,” she says.
These days, Kirk is looking to expand her expertise into the realm of large-scale 3-D formats like sculptures. She also hopes to someday paint murals in South America, where she says the color palates of countries like Colombia and Peru would really work well with her own style. Most recently, she completed an original mural for New York Pride, a mural in honor of the U.S. Women’s National Team in Chicago’s Wicker Park, and also created art for the Chicago Reader Pride Block Party, benefitting Chicago’s LGBTQ communities via organizations like the Association of Latinxs Motivating Action, Youth Empowerment Performance Project, and Equality Illinois. Mostly, Kirk hopes to continue creating work that empowers queer and Latinx communities (especially in Chicago, which she hopes will someday become a fully desegregated city, embracing people from all walks of life).
She also has some great advice for aspiring queer and Latinx artists: Don’t be afraid to create your own path, and don’t shy away from asking for help.
“As Latinas, we’re very proud. Asking for help is something that I found very difficult to do. We’re always taught to work hard, keep our heads down…but that doesn’t work in art because the industry isn’t necessarily populated with a whole lot of us, especially at higher levels. You need to be willing to ask questions and seek out people who are gonna help you get to the next level.”
She also wanted to remind folks to always stay open to new opportunities that might present themselves. But most of all?
“Enjoy the work. If you’re not enjoying it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it anymore.”