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Muralist Sam Kirk painting a mural in Pilsen.
Muralist Sam Kirk painting a mural in Pilsen.
Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

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Muralist Sam Kirk explores identity, culture through public art

The Chicago artist’s work speaks to housing insecurities and the threat of displacement and expresses LGBTQ pride.

Crouching, Sam Kirk shakes a can of spray paint, her loose curls moving in rhythm with the marble “pea” inside the can.

Before her is an outline of a mural she’d sketched, layering the facade of a house in Pilsen. The single-family home is soon to become a living historical account of Pilsen’s past and present.

She sprays the gray paint onto the siding. Then, she picks up a paintbrush. The brush has been essential for Kirk’s growth as a multidisciplinary artist whose murals speak to housing insecurities and threats of displacement and express LGBTQ pride.

The Chicago native didn’t plan to be an artist. Her passion started as a way to explore her own identity. Over the past eight years, she has become one of the more prominent women’s voices in the male-dominated art industry.

“Sometimes, when I speak to young female artists, there’s a hesitation, and I think that has a lot to do with the place that women have in society,” Kirk says. “The ways women have been treated, or the opportunities we have been denied can somehow ingrain itself in women.

“To think it hasn’t would be crazy.”

Kirk figures the rules of the art world weren’t built for people like her — a biracial, queer woman of color. She has carved out her own path in representing her community and keeping a team of women around her willing to push boundaries.

“It’s the unnecessary obstacles that women have to cross, especially in the public space,” Kirk says. “Constantly dealing with harassment, men coming up and questioning our skills, asking if we need help.”

Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi’s 2016 “Weaving Cultures” promotes unity, highlighting women in underrepresented communities.
Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi’s 2016 “Weaving Cultures” promotes unity, highlighting women in underrepresented communities.
Sun-Times files

Pilsen is home to much of Kirk’s work. But her footprint also extends to Little Village, Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, Hermosa and Logan Square and beyond. Her work also can be seen in Michigan, New York and even North Africa.

Kirk says one of the highlights of her professional life was a month-long trip she and her wife Jenny Q took last year to Casablanca, Morocco, where they used that time to connect with and learn from people there.

Jenny Q (left) and Sam Kirk in front of the “Sister Cities” mural last year in Casablanca, Morocco.
Jenny Q (left) and Sam Kirk in front of the “Sister Cities” mural last year in Casablanca, Morocco.
Provided photo

Those connections helped conceptualize the five-story mural “Sister Cities” they created on the coast of Casablanca. The mural — celebrating women, unity and friendship — depicts two women with flowing blue hair. Their faces are painted shades of brown, a staple of Kirk’s work.

The mural stands as one of Kirk’s proudest achievements. It also was the most difficult thing she’s done, she says, because that country’s anti-LGBTQ laws kept her from being her authentic self. Kirk has spent her career fighting for visibility and equal rights but, in Casablanca, couldn’t even show affection for her wife in public.

Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi’s 2017 “Logan Square Mural” depicts a pre-gentrified neighborhood.
Sam Kirk and Sandra Antongiorgi’s 2017 “Logan Square Mural” depicts a pre-gentrified neighborhood.
Sun-Times files

“But Morocco is only one place,” Kirk says. “Any time we are planning a trip or vacation, we have to think about those things.”

Wherever she goes, Kirk says her South Side origins help define her perspective. But she says talking with people who live in a given neighborhood helps her to create art that will stay relevant.

“It was important to incorporate the input of the community, and they felt it was crucial for the ‘Logan Square Mural,’ ” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) says of a work that depicts the neighborhood before gentrification. “They spoke about the themes in our neighborhood and the fears, like gentrification and displacement.”

Ramirez-Rosa and a team commissioned Kirk and artist Sandra Antongiorgi to paint the mural at the CTA’s Logan Square Blue Line stop’s bus turnaround. The piece was part of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2017 “Year of Public Art.”

“You see landmarks of the community, the faces of the people that call Logan Square home, and you see its historic overtures,” Ramirez-Rosa says. “I think it’s a very beautiful, vibrant piece of the diverse neighborhood we are aspiring to be.”

Sam Kirk’s “Si Se Puede” mural at 1306 S. Michigan Ave.
Sam Kirk’s “Si Se Puede” mural at 1306 S. Michigan Ave.
Rich Hein / Sun-Times

As Pilsen, Logan Square and other rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods undergo change, Kirk says she hopes public art like hers will inspire new residents to ask about the murals, who created them and what was going on when the murals were created.

“Murals allows us to understand the history of our neighborhoods,” Kirk says. “We think about all of the opportunities that were not given to black and brown people as far as owning and buying property, like how redlining has affected communities of color here.

“I feel a mural can spark that conversation and almost give a history lesson.”

Take Kirk’s first mural. Painted in 2010, “The Culture Clash,” at 1708 S. Ashland Ave., addresses housing displacement.

Another mural, “Si Se Puede” at 1306 S. Michigan Ave., is a nod to the labor movement.

Another, “Power to the People,” at State Street and Lake Street, celebrates women in construction trades.

Some of her paintings highlight a neighborhood’s unsung heroes, like “Pilseneros,” showing a paletero — an ice-cream man — and the smiles that embrace him.

Sam Kirk’s first mural “The Culture Clash” at 1708 S. Ashland Ave. speaks to displacement in Pilsen resulting from gentrification.
Sam Kirk’s first mural “The Culture Clash” at 1708 S. Ashland Ave. speaks to displacement in Pilsen resulting from gentrification.
Annie Costabile / Sun-Times

Click on map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

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