Identity and Struggle: Interview with Sam Kirk
In Sam Kirk’s shared Pilsen studio at the Chicago Art Department, there are desks and a couple of small colorful portraits on the wall. They serve as a sharp contrast…
In Sam Kirk’s shared Pilsen studio at the Chicago Art Department, there are desks and a couple of small colorful portraits on the wall. They serve as a sharp contrast to the white walls accustomed to a flurry of monthly exhibits. One of the walls is a high partition that nearly hides the small but clearly busy space. The heavy table in the center of the work studio holds a work in progress that reverberates with the bright color choices and the distinct, curved lines that are a signature of Kirk’s style. However, each segment is glass cut then soldered into place by the dark lines that Kirk might normally reinforce with a smaller brush dipped in black paint, if she were working solely on canvas. Kirk’s work with glass has not only recently become part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of Mexican Art, but has become an identifiable style that she shares in public murals, exhibits, commissioned work, and even enamel pins and greeting cards. Her upcoming show “The Alchemy of Us” opens at Chicago Art Department on Friday, April 12, spurred to the conversation that follows. The exchange included talking about LGBT and interracial identities in Kirk’s work and daily existence, the differences between working on the East Coast and being back in Chicago, the tenuous balance between creativity and commerce, and how social justice can be fueled by an artist’s determination to use all the materials at their disposal to consistently make new work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TB: My first question was going to be: what was initially the first event when you knew you wanted to be an artist, but then I was like, nah, maybe let’s start with: what is really exciting to you right now in terms of the creative process?
SK: Right now, the most exciting thing is figuring out how do I simplify the messages that I’m trying to create in my work? Or simplify the narrative that I’m trying to create in my work? And to a point where it is quickly digestible or quickly recognized for exactly what it is. I always want my work to do the talking for itself. I don’t wanna have to explain it. Whether the person gets exactly what I’m trying to say or if the work just stops them in their tracks for a moment and makes them start to ponder or thinks as long as it’s in the direction of where I’m trying to go, I’m happy. So, for me, as an artist in the process of developing work, it’s really trying to take these layers and layers of content and figure out how do I put that in a piece that shares the story. Also, how do I create work that is really impactful about some of the things we’re struggling with and dealing with today and have been for a long time.
TB: For a very long time. I don’t think it’s just about the subject matter in your work, too. Sometimes it’s about the placement, where are you putting the work. And who gets to see it? I think you think about that a lot in terms of what you’re doing.
SK: Yeah, I definitely do and even more so now. You know it’s challenging because as an artist we have these residencies, and we have this path that has been laid out as an artist – this is the direction you’re supposed to go in, you know? I’ve never really followed that path. This is my first residency at Chicago Art Department, and I’ve been doing this now for nine years as a full-time artist. This is what’s sustaining my life. I’ve been painting since I was a teenager, for obviously years and years and years. But even more so now as my career is growing, I’m finding that I’m less interested in that traditional path. And it’s because of what you said: the message, the placement, who the work is reaching, who I’m trying to communicate to, whose minds I’m trying to impact, and how I want the work to spark those conversations. I’m more interested in people who grew up similar to me, or with similar struggles, and struggles that are greater than those that I’ve had that the work might impact more than catering to the elite world of art.
TB: I’ve definitely been feeling for a long time the same way about the writing world. Like there’s this pedigreed set of stops that you’re supposed to make, and if you don’t make those stops, then somehow you’re not a part of the conversation. And that’s a falsehood. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t tell the truth about the situation.
SK: Right. One, it doesn’t tell the truth, and two, most of the people that my work is about and that I think are attracted to the stories I’m sharing aren’t in those realms. If they are, it’s a small percentage. And I just wanna really reach the people that aren’t there. It just so happens to be that it’s set up that way. Until that changes, I’m gonna figure out what works for me. It might continue to be a little bit of this, a little bit of that. You know, I just constantly get the criticism I’ve been getting.
TB: What’s the criticism you’ve been getting?
SK: The thing is that whenever I show in museums or put my work in – I’ve been putting my work the last couple years the curator’s always like, “Your work is priced too low. You need to raise the value. So, do this or do that” – and I find that it’s so easy for them to say that. But they’re not thinking about what matters to me as an artist. And at the end of the day, for me it’s about how can I produce enough work where I can sustain myself, and what do I need to price it at to be able to continue to do work like this because it’s important. But also more than anything I want this work to hang on the walls of people that really see themselves in it, or they relate to it, or it’s relevant to them. I always think about artists like Kehinde Wiley, some of these very large artists of color who have made a huge impact, I think about how do they feel about some of their pieces when they’re used in collections that are with white families, or families that definitely don’t relate to the subject that’s in the piece.
TB: Right, I think about that a lot, too. So much art disappears into these anonymous families that no one knows as opposed to being in a public space. Like we talked about Kerry James Marshall’s piece and the attempted auction to take the piece out of the Legler Library. It was atrocious. To think that someone can try to take art that’s meant to be public and turn it into profit that way…
SK: And then, what are you gonna replace it with for the people that have enjoyed that for the amount of time it’s been there? Why is it ok for you to just come into that space and remove it from the people that are enjoying it there? And that’s a part of the art world that I’m not a big fan of.
TB: And there are some artists, too, that have figured out how to do – it is a challenge because you don’t want it to be kitschy stuff. This one graffiti writer did all these different characters, and he had a store in Lower East Side maybe. It was full of almost pocket-size sketches in frames. You know the guy I’m talking about?
SK: Yes, I met him a couple times. De la Vega.
TB: De la Vega would have all these, really simple pieces, all over the place and they’re priced –
SK: They’re pricey.
TB: At a certain level though, it’s like anybody could get it, or you could save a little money and get one. Right? I think about Charles White. He said, I’m gonna do art for insurance company calendars. Because he knew people would keep the calendars. Did you see them in the Art Institute exhibit?
SK: No, I didn’t.
TB: They had some in the exhibit. They’re so beautiful, and this is for an insurance company? You see a lot of calendars now, they’re hideous. But it was just this spiral bound calendar, this beautiful white paper. It’s like stuff you would cut out of the calendar and frame.
SK: And frame it, yeah.
TB: You’d never know the difference.
SK: Yeah, I was just gonna say that actually. I’ve had so many people who want that. I make merchandise at several price points for that reason so that people can buy it no matter what their income level is. I’ve had people buy greeting cards that are basically just a smaller scale of a painting that I did, and they take it home and frame it. It just looks like this little nice art print. And I love that. They’ve taken it and they’re like, yeah, it’s a greeting card, but I’ve framed it. It’s a piece that I relate to on the wall, and I like that.
TB: I don’t think it’s a horrible idea because it’s another way to dismantle overpriced, exclusionary practices.
SK: You know, that’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately with pricing artwork and considering just creating my own model of how I want to do it. I’m still playing with some ideas and tossing some things around to figure how does that work, and what would be the best way to do it because, yeah, I’m personally tired of people saying it should be this or it should be that…and all the people that support me, up to this point, it takes them out of the ability to own. I’m just not interested in that.
TB: Nobody wants a Five Heartbeats moment. You cross over, and never get the audience back.
SK: Right. Or you find yourself in rooms with this new audience, and you feel like, “I don’t belong here. I don’t wanna have these conversations, what the hell are they talking about?”
TB: Right, if I don’t even relate to this, why am I even here? I thought about [your] piece, “Making Memories of Mentors”? Frida’s in it. Frida Kahlo painted herself her whole life. She’s everywhere. We know her. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting themes in your work. I think you do it unconsciously.
SK: Yeah, I definitely I agree with that. During this residency I’ve started to realize a little bit of that. You know the theme, cause I’ve had some time to look at what I’ve done, what I’m trying to do. I’ve started to notice some of those patterns.
TB: Yeah, I think one of the things I found really appealing when I just started looking at everything, like stuff that’s been here at CAD, pieces online, and in the city. There are a lot of community scenes. A lot of women of color. There’s LGBT themes in the work, even if you just sneaked a little rainbow flag into it. I was thinking, she’s slick with it. But I saw there was a series on Luchadors? Mexican Wrestlers? So, she’s done that, she’s talked about prisons. Even the piece that was in the “Iconic” exhibit, you had the piece where you incorporated the buttons from the Young Lords, the Black Panthers, and Stonewall, or when your piece in The Long Term, addresses prisons. All these little moments come together, and it gives a clear intersectional identity. So, is there a topic you’ve kind of quietly been obsessed with that you would like to do pieces about? That you haven’t done yet?
SK: Well, it’s what I’ve been working on throughout my residency, and it’s the topic of identity. And really looking at how society and our environments shape our identity. Or for the LGBT community in specific, what limits us from discovering our identity. In this residency, that’s really been the focus and where I’ve really started to go with the artwork is focusing on all the moments that prohibit people from being who they are meant to be. And how long, how many years they end up in a way suffocating that part of themselves. Or just hiding and putting it away. Because of family, friends, people you thought were your friends, and society as a whole. Our government, you know, politics, everything. That’s something that I didn’t dive into right away, and it was because I think in some way I was hiding. I grew up in Chicago, and it’s been a great city. But the few times I’ve moved away, I’ve found that getting away from this city allowed me to explore a different side of myself because I wasn’t surrounded by all the input that I had here. I never thought that that affected me in the way that it did. The longest time I left was when I was living in New York for three years, and I really started to see that, so when I moved back here a couple years ago, then I literally felt that pressure of who I had to be here, because of all the people that I knew. I felt myself battling how am I supposed to be that awesome, amazing person that I was in New York City that I felt was genuinely me. I was able to express and still be that here. And I never really explored that in my work so I was just writing about it, as I was trying to write the statement for this show. I feel like I’ve always looked at who has been in my surroundings as the content for my work, and subconsciously have been avoiding myself.
TB: Cause it’s easier to look outside. You know you don’t have to critique yourself so horribly.
SK: Yeah, during this residency I started to think, why aren’t you looking at yourself, because I’m looking at all these people that have similar struggles to me or that identify in similar ways that I do. And trying to tell their stories or showcase the concept or the topic through them…for this exhibit, that’s what I’m really trying to do: show what those layers of identity and struggle are in various scenarios.
TB: In a previous interview that we talked about earlier, there were several points where you said, “I wanna talk about what it’s like to be mixed or interracial.” It’s funny cause I’ve always said I’m black, but it’s clear when people see me they’re like “OK, what’s going on?” It’s always a conversation where you’re trying to explain a dynamic to someone that has visual markers to them that they don’t understand. So, do you find that working in the visual arts has helped you find ways to explain it to people? Cause I loved how you talked about the use of line.
TB: And I was really interested in the line because your lines are so thick and defined in a lot of cases. They do vary. But it’s so pronounced that it feels like it lends a certain kind of muscularity to it. It lends a softness, too, because they’re never straight and rigid.
SK: Right, they’re always curved and flowing in some way.
TB: It really makes me think about the body or just looking at anatomical design, but it’s not so fine, and it still captures the body. And then when you started talking about, “but if you look the faces are all broken up” and I looked and said, “Damn, she does do that. It’s not just in the stained glass, it’s always in the paintings.”
SK: It’s always in the paintings, yeah. That’s from growing up mixed and constantly having to explain my mom versus my dad. I definitely look like a combination of both my parents but whenever they showed up for anything people never believed that my mom’s my mom.
TB: Yeah, that automatic confusion.
SK: Yeah, so trying to get people to understand that you can physically look one way, but still have all of this within you that is your ancestors and that is your culture. Things that make up who you are, and I find that that’s another struggle here in Chicago that I’ve had to really figure out how to tackle, that I don’t necessarily feel that I have to do in other places. You know when we were in Africa last year painting a mural, so many people thought I was Moroccan. Just because of my features and what I looked like blended right in. They didn’t even really question it. And here, I find that more than anything, almost like how the neighborhoods are divided.
TB: I definitely think that’s a factor.
SK: The concept of race and culture is divided, too. And it’s like, “what exactly are you?” To be mixed growing up in this city – it just feels so outdated. The lack of cultural knowledge, and progression, really baffles me sometimes.
TB: And it’s not surprising cause when you think about the racial politics of this city, that hasn’t changed very much.
TB: I remember cause I grew up just outside the city in Kankakee. It was the same things. But it was like because it’s a small town, everybody had to interact with each other at some point. But when I came here, it was like nothing I ever had to deal with before. Then I moved to New York, as well, I was there from about 2003–2015. Same experience, like, it wasn’t a big deal. Then I came back, and it was either somebody’s got something to say about people being light skinned, or someone asks “how are you black?” I hadn’t heard it in years so I was like, what?
SK: When people understand it they’re like, “Oh, you’re Afro-Latina. Or you’re Puerto Rican, and you’re mixed so you’re a bunch of other things. You have Afro-Latina” – here they’re like, “How?” The first thing they see is color, and skin tone, and then you have to break down exactly what you are. Do I need to show you a picture of my mother? Do I need to physically pull out a picture of what this woman looks like for you to believe that this is part of my culture? It’s a little frustrating especially to be in such a big city, and to have so many cultural representations here, and for there to be this divide, and just lack of knowledge and recognition.
TB: And just that you have to explain these things, even if people really look at your work. It really illustrates and underscores that you could be in the same family, and everybody looks different. You could be brothers and sisters, everybody’s in the same family, and everybody looks different. But we’re still having that conversation in 2019. It blows my mind.
SK: It’s lonely.
TB: It can be. How do you think you’re addressing that in the new work? How is it coming out for you? What do you see yourself doing differently?
SK: So, the new work for this next show is really mostly on identity. I am possibly playing with a piece that does touch on some of the multiracial part of me and who I am. I’m just still really figuring out how do I get people here to understand that. And maybe I’m thinking too much about it. But that’s still something I’m really trying to figure out. I feel like depending on where you show some of this work, and who the audience is, that will determine what it needs to go into, how much do I need to break it down. For me, at some point I don’t want to have to break it down.
TB: Yeah, you get tired of explaining the same stuff.
SK: I don’t wanna have to break it down. If you don’t get it, I don’t know what to do to help you. My partner always says, “I’m tired of educating these people,” you know? And I hear her, I get her on that. We’re different but in some ways, I feel the same way with my identity. So yeah, for this new show I don’t know that there will be much of the mixed part of my identity, but definitely my identity, and some of what goes into it. But we’ll see. My process is very organic. This whole conversation could change what I do tomorrow, you know? So
TB: Well, hopefully that’s a good thing if it does.
SK: Oh, that’s a great thing. And it’s one of the things I love about my work is the all the content is entirely generated by life experiences. So, it’s conversations, what I read, and experiences I have.
SK: They all sprinkle their way into the concepts or the content. And I love that.
TB: Do you think about – this is gonna sound corny – do you think about joy?
SK: Oh yeah. Constantly. Especially in my work.
TB: How do you think about it in your work?
SK: Well, I never want my work to be something that people look at, and they’re exhausted from it. For a long time, when I was first starting, my work was that. Over the last several years, I’ve tried to figure out how do I balance the two. How do I have this deep, meaningful narrative that’s also something that people feel pride from when they look at it.
SK: Joy is constantly something that I’m thinking about. When I’m painting sometimes, I’ll find that the characters might not have a lot of emotional expression or their faces might not be smiling, and I’m like, I gotta change that, there’s gotta be joy in this because even though we’re talking about joy and this struggle and the difficulties, that doesn’t mean that we’re not happy. I think more than anything people need to see work that reflects them that is joyful. We need to see more images of people of color in joy and happiness. Because as you know the media just blasts negative shit constantly.
SK: But yeah, I think about that constantly; making sure that I’m trying to do that in my work. And you know for my nieces and nephews, my nephew, it’s like perfect for what you’re saying. My niece and nephew have the same parents and they are literally totally opposite skin tones. Like they are literally complete opposites and my nephew is darker. And I notice sometimes the struggle that he is having in seeing positive versions of himself. And he’s ten.
SK: So I think some of the things that he says and, you know, friends, family just trying to make sure that my work remains to be for them. And not necessarily a piece to educate or help people understand us.
TB: Favianna Rodriguez has this one piece that’s got an Emma Goldman quote that I always think about. She says, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” It makes me think about what is this balance between joy and the struggle, gravity and levity. Cause you have to have a reason to fight.
TB: You have to have a reason to keep going.
SK: Right, and if you don’t feel good, then it’s easier to give up. Especially with my murals, I try to make sure that my murals are focusing on positive versions of people of color, specifically women of color. I really try to take advantage of using spaces, like the two murals I have downtown. When I proposed those, I was really surprised that I got it. Well, I probably shouldn’t have been as surprised. Now that I know the curator for Columbia College, it makes complete sense. When I got that commission, I didn’t know her, and Neysa Page Lieberman’s all about making sure that that’s out there.
SK: Yeah, Neysa is the curator that’s part of Columbia and she runs the Wabash Arts Corridor. She’s all about making sure that women are getting their space and that we’re creating content that is reflective of, and supporting more women of color. So now that I know her better, it makes perfect sense. She wanted me to do this, and she gave me this giant wall to do it. When I have the opportunity more than ever in those spaces, I really try to make sure that I’m putting work like that there.
TB: Yeah, especially like when I think of the stuff that’s downtown, there’s a lot of figurative work with male characters in it – you see men in a lot of murals, you don’t see women like that.
TB: I just think about that all the time: what are we creating as counter-narratives to what we get fed all the time? Sometimes even if we get an image that looks like us, it’s not. Well, look at Green Book, it’s clear. We don’t get the accurate story. One of the other things I was thinking about, cause you talked a bit about doing stuff with kids, I saw you did a coloring book.
SK: Yeah, my partner and I did a coloring book together.
SK: Called “As Queer As I Wanna Be”.
TB: I thought that was really cool because how do you have a conversation with a young person and not weird them out, and I say that as a straight person.
SK: As far as like identity?
TB: Yeah, because most of the time, I don’t make it a discussion with young people. I’m like you’re who you are, love who you love, I’m gonna love you regardless.
SK: My nephew, he clearly knows that my partner and I have been together. My niece as well. We’ve been together as long as she’s been alive.
TB: And the kids get it before the adults do.
SK: No, the minute I say, “She’s my girlfriend,” or, “she’s my partner,” just like your mom and dad are a couple, we’re a couple. They get like, “What? Oh, I dunno.” And the crazy thing is my sister, their mother is super supportive, so is her husband. So, I know it’s not coming from them. But the way that words and slang and derogatory language is used in school, and are used, and all the things that they’re hearing is still enough for him and her to both look at us like, “Eugh, really?” Despite how much love and care and everything else that’s shown and shared between us. I know he loves me deeply. But the minute that we mention anything about identity and being gay, there’s definitely this uncomfortableness that comes into play. And I know what that comes from, so I don’t blame him. It’s then just my job to help him understand and to try to open his mind from all of that other stuff that’s cluttering it. Nonsense.
TB: So, I haven’t seen the coloring book, but did it kind of touch on stuff, so that maybe kids like him could understand it better?
SK: A little bit, yes. I think the next time we do one – we’re talking about doing another one – we’re gonna add more text to it. This one didn’t follow a particular story. It was really just a combination of different illustrations that she and I had done that were representative of queer kids of color. That just means because you still type in “gay man” in Google you get all white people. Same thing with “lesbian woman,” you get all white people. You have to specifically type Latin, or Black, or Indian gay such and such in order to get people who look like us. So, with the coloring book, we really just wanted to put something out there that showed queer kids of color. There’s a variety of different ways that you can look and be and that’s ok. So, for the next one we’re planning to put in a little bit more text and tell a story for it.
TB: When I think about the past twenty years being around artists and writers, it tends to be that people who are in the LGBT community who are of color don’t look like the gay white people, they just never do. So visually, it’s very powerful when you think about it that there’s not a uniform set of expectations to it. What things get left out that you think could make the pictures more compelling for kids or give them more accurate representation?
SK: Well, I think there’s an obvious struggle, obvious for me, maybe not obvious for you as a straight woman. But there’s definitely a struggle with those who are transgender within our communities. So, we really focused on making sure we were including that in the coloring book and showing that it’s okay to wear a dress if you’re a boy, and it’s okay to explore your identity and figure out what does that mean. A lot of the images in the coloring book definitely reflect on that. Mostly because – you know this – transgender women of color, the rates that they’re being…
TB: – Murdered.
SK: Murdered, abused, and beaten. It’s insane, and unfortunately a lot of times that happens within our own communities, so just trying to make sure that is being seen at a young level. I’m thirty-seven, and with all the research that I’ve done and conversations that I’ve had that whether it’s for my work or just because we’re having these conversations, I’ve found that there’s so many of my peers or people that I know that are near my age and are just starting to transition. When you ask why, or how long you’ve felt this way, there is no way that they felt at eight, or nine, or thirteen they could start to play with those feelings of being a different gender or identifying differently, whether it’s gender fluid or what have you. I think it’s important for young kids of color to see somebody that looks like them, exploring in that way.
TB: And you can’t determine, what you want kids to be, regardless of how they see themselves. You can’t say, “This is what you’re gonna be.”
SK: Yeah, you can’t.
TB: That’d be like somebody saying “you’re gonna go, and be a mortician,” and they’re like
I’ma be an artist, no.” You don’t do that to kids.
SK: The coloring book is such a simple thing, but it’s necessary so that those things are being seen at a young age, and in turn changes the type of work that I’m creating now. Most of the stuff I’m creating right now is about the very long route to get to now that I’m finally comfortable with myself. My thought is, what do we need to do within our own families and communities to make sure that these things are seen in a way that is very usual and normal, and not like “oh, you’re different.” So, even in my work, I think you mentioned one where there’s a little gay flag. I did a portrait of a good friend of mine named Aubrey, and she’s a very proud queer woman, a mother. No one would ever know that she’s a queer woman based on how she looks. I only put that in there because I know she’s very proud of who she is and everything, but I’m also trying to figure out with all the new work. There won’t really be any rainbow references. I don’t feel like we need to do that. I don’t need to walk out and be like, “Hey y’all, I’m gay.”
TB: I wanna turn back a bit cause you were talking about creating alternate models earlier, which kind of connects to the coloring book, too. I’m kind of curious, how did you start formulating the Provoke Culture website and sharing that smaller scale work that people can share with others?
SK: Well, Provoke Culture initially started as something that I wanted to put together for artists who are celebrating culture or just talk about culture in their work. I wanted to do that mostly because at the time when I thought of it, I wasn’t finding a whole lot of spaces in Chicago that did that beyond museums – smaller spaces. Now, there’s a few. Initially it was just meant to be an online place where these artists could sell or show their work. It became mostly a merchandise hub so there were less expensive ways of buying art. Not everybody wants to or can drop hundreds of dollars or thousands of dollars on a painting, but a lot of people can wear t-shirts, and they’re wearing them proudly. Fashion is another way of expressing one’s identity. So, to create these little art pieces that are easy for people to have – Provoke Culture will always exist for that reason. Prints and small merchandise will always be something that I do to make sure that the work is always accessible. It’s very important to me. I know what it’s like to not be able to buy things that you want and have things that you want.
TB: I keep thinking about that, too, because you have talked about your mom and all the different jobs she worked.
SK: Yeah, so many jobs. She’d have, like, three jobs at one time at some points.
TB: My parents got divorced when I was thirteen.
SK: Oh, mine too.
TB: I think that’s that number. There’s something about thirteen when something really dramatic happens. It’s like you’re starting to come into adulthood or come into your sexuality, and your creativity jumps off. That cusp of going into puberty and adulthood where things happen at thirteen. But my mom worked in a mental health facility where she was showering people, bathing people, feeding them. Sometimes they fought her and that’s hard, institutional work. She was like “If you don’t go to school…”
SK: My mom did that, too, for a little while; she worked at McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart, banquets, anything and everything that she needed to do to provide for us to try to give us as much as she could, and I really appreciate everything that she did. It was crazy to me because my mom was the only one working all the jobs. My dad had one job. I remember as a teenager always wondering, why did she have to work three times as hard as he did. When we talk about race, my mom’s the black woman in this dynamic, my dad’s that white man. So why did she have to do that? She’s already working hard, to exist.
TB: And probably working harder for less money, too.
SK: Oh, without a doubt.
TB: It’s like she can be working working working and he works the one job and he makes more money than her already. So, it tells you a lot not just about the economy but Chicago, too – in some ways, the city magnifies what happens to women of color by ten, as compared to how it affects people in other parts of the country. I’m curious since you talked about leaving Chicago and feeling able to express your full self. I left because it felt much the same with other gendered stuff in Chicago. It wasn’t just knowing that I had gay colleagues and friends who left the city because they felt they were stultified, too, but being a woman and a woman of color, and feeling like there was always a man at a door who was like, nope, no entry. Or they wanted to showcase a younger woman, sometimes a woman I had taught, and I’d be like, really? I finally just said, I’m going to New York. I can’t deal with this. It did give me space to write and to think about the work in different ways. When I came back, I was way more confident because I knew I had abilities, and I saw other people who were doing what I was doing. So, I’m kind of wondering did coming back magnify your abilities in different ways? How can you come to this work and do it, even though you felt challenged by being in this place in the past?
SK: Yeah, so I initially left Chicago, mostly because I wanted to know what it felt like to live in a space that felt more multicultural. Even though New York has its segregation, and the neighborhoods have their majorities, no matter what you do you will pass somebody of a different culture every single day.
SK: You will hear a different language multiple times a day. And there’s no control you have over it. Period.
TB: A lot of it’s economic. You know, it’s like everybody’s hustling.
SK: Everybody’s hustling. Everybody’s struggling. So that was that main reason I was interested in going to New York and coming back after being there. More than anything, my focus shifted in my work to: what are my goals? I feel like, here in Chicago, there’s a lot of artists competing against each other. When I came back, what I learned from being away was, that’s not the world that I want to be in, and that’s not what it’s about for me. Period. That’s not what it’s about for me at all. I definitely found myself in situations where I had to choose if I wanted to continue friendships, things that I needed to let go, and at a rate that I didn’t expect to have to do that at, but I’m glad to be back because, unlike New York, with Chicago I have the time and the space to really flesh out what I want to do and play with the work. It’s just a choice of how I want what’s happening in this city to impact me or not, and I choose to not let most of it impact me.
TB: Yeah, it’s good to be in that space.
SK: It really is.
TB: It really is. I’m glad to be close to family and familiar places. It’s something about the air in Chicago, but I feel like I breathe easier here than I do anyplace else. In spite of, you know?
SK: It’s interesting to be back here. I feel like I’m relearning a lot about the city and building new friendships and new relationships and that’s great. And travel has really helped the process.
TB: Absolutely. It always makes me think you travel all over the place and come home. What made you say I have to come home to do the work?
SK: Oh, you’re asking me right now?
TB: Yeah. Well, I know what I did. I can’t speak for you.
SK: Well, I feel like Chicago has so much potential. And when we travel we learn so much about other people and other cultures. As an artist, I feel I have to come back and share that with people here so that again, people that exist that are part of those cultures are seen more here, and that we try to break up this segregation that we’ve lived within. I think the more we put different things into people’s minds instead of what is the bubble of Chicago, the more likely it will be for us to pop that and actually grow into a greater city. Because now, everything happens in this bubble, all this stuff…As an artist, I feel like it’s part of my job to take what I learn in my travels and bring it back and make people see things, or when they look at my work and have their curiosity be sparked to want to learn more or go out and explore more. Whether it’s here, or elsewhere.
TB: Elsewhere. It’s so funny to me when I think about it, because I was just talking to Lional Freeman, he does electronic music. He performed at Brandon Breaux’s Invisible Store opening.
SK: Oh really?
TB: Lional and I went to college together, and we were talking about just briefly the competition part and I said, “Really I just want everyone to be happy and if you’re from Chicago I want you to win.”
SK: We need more camaraderie here.
TB: Yeah, and I think that’s such a different mindset because I think people are always like, “Why did you stay?” It used to always be, why did you stay, now it’s like people are trying to stay but there’s a scarcity mentality around that.
SK: Well yeah, and just with the number of people of color that are leaving here because of the issues that we have. For those that are here, what are we gonna do to make this a better city for us?
TB: Right. I was thinking about that, too, when I looked at the stuff from Peeling off the Grey. Cause who the hell wants to live in a city where everything looks like it came out of a Charles Dickens novel? To just peel it back with color, not just color like orange, yellow, blue. We’re talking about that wouldn’t happen if you had no people of color to think about that.
TB: I’m really concerned what the future Chicago will look like. I know artists think we create the future. Creative people are thinking: you create something on a canvas or you write a book, you can make an opportunity. But I’m wondering how the overall philosophy of the city is gonna change over time.
SK: The challenge is Chicago has great art community but if the city doesn’t start to do more to support this creative community, we’re gonna continue to lose our creative community. Without a doubt.
TB: So, I’m thinking on a more hopeful note, what’s some of the stuff that has made it more engaging to be at home? You went and saw something else, you’re more into your own framework, and everything has changed because you grow new frameworks, people change, you drop off, that’s real but have there been aesthetic shifts? Has there been stuff that you saw that has fed you. What feeds you about being in Chicago?
SK: Yeah, a lot of the communities that people don’t pay attention to, I find the most genuine people and the most fascinating people. I could be around that all day long. There’s so much soul in Chicagoans, especially those that have been here for generations and generations.
SK: My family has been here for several generations so there’s something about that vibe and the way that they talk. There’s something about the way they do things that I love. It gets inside me and I want to try to show that in my work when I have the opportunity. I’ve been asked to do a few commissions that celebrate Chicago by Adidas and for the city for SXSW, and the reaction that people get in something that isn’t figurative, but shows like how the buildings move or they look like they’re moving. That’s what the good part of Chicago feels like to me. It’s the very soulful, old school part, and it’s people that are blue collar, working super hard every day but, man, they have the biggest laughs. The biggest smiles. And I love listening to their stories. So, I intentionally make sure that I live within communities that I can walk outside and that’s what I hear and what I see. Visiting spaces like that feels good. We went to vote the other day, and one of the men asked my partner if she wanted to use the digital machine. I guess we looked young enough where they thought we should use the digital machine. And she was like, no I’m old school. I’ll do it. This guy jumped up and was like, “Alright, old school! Yeah, you keep it old school!” And I was like oh my god, that just made my whole evening. I saw so much character in him and that is Chicago to me – that energy, that vibe. And I hope that we’re able to see more of it and I hope that the communities that haven’t been invested in for a long time are invested in without development and gentrification so that these people can thrive and we see more.
TB: Right. And there’s so much to be said for what you described as soulfulness. I always feel it’s a southern kind of approach.
SK: Oh yeah.
TB: You know, it’s not just if you’re from the South Side of the city, but you probably have relatives in Mississippi, Tennessee, something that you don’t know about.
SK: I probably do have that. I know I have some in Alabama.
SK: I understand what you’re saying and that’s the part that I love, too. Like my partner coming here, and she was born and raised in Brooklyn. She’s always like, “I don’t understand what these people are saying.” And it’s that combination of city accent and southern twang that is the sound from the South Side, and I love hearing that.
TB: I fall into it, too.
SK: I’m falling back into this South Side Chicago way of speaking, so…
TB: Listening to you, you don’t waste words.
SK: That’s a nice way to say it.
TB: Here people can say a few words, stretch them out, and it says so much cause there’s context underneath it, even for old boy to be: “Okay, old school.”
SK: Well yeah, the way he said it, his body language and everything expressed in that little sentence. My partner was like, okay, alright.
TB: But it’s a kind of empathy, and I think that’s what I missed about being here. Although there may be people who are competitive and petty but then there’s also people who have a real sense of empathy and vision and care for other folks, or they understand it’s like you’re gon’ bust your ass, and you’re gon’ work every day but you need levity and humor to do it.
SK: That’s a part of Chicago that I enjoy as well. There is a care for people, whether it’s just customer service or, just this is how you treat others, you know there’s just something about that mentality that I appreciate here. It makes it easier, you know? Going through the day to day, in other places I might have had a tough day and other people would just make it worse and here, I can walk to the store, a local shop and just the energy that people give you and the care and what matters to them in what they’re providing, it’s gonna be a better day, alright.
TB: Sometimes that’s all you need to keep going.
SK: Yeah people speak, they ask you how you’re doing while they’re bagging your groceries.
TB: It took me time to find people like that in New York. That’s a tough one.
SK: Well, when I was there, I would do the same thing. When I see people on the street I say, good morning. How you doing? And when I would go into the bodegas or whatever I’d say, “Hey, how you doing?” And they’d always look at me kind of funny.
TB: Like what’s wrong with you.
SK: And I was like oh well, I hope you have a good day. And my partner does this, too – I think it’s more of a West Indian thing. We lived in East Flatbush when we lived there and a lot of the people there always say good morning or good evening. It’s part of their culture, but they just couldn’t get used to me doing that. And I’m so glad that that stuck. And she would always say, “Hey Midwest, come on. This is New York. You can’t be nice to everybody.” Or I’m glad I didn’t lose that in the time that I was living out there, even when I’ve lived elsewhere, I haven’t lost that Midwestern charm.
TB: Yeah. I’m glad I didn’t lose that sensibility.
SK: I’ve been working in New York for years and years, going back and forth for over ten years now, but I always say New York has given me my armor, and Chicago gave me my charm. So it’s the perfect combination of both things for a business woman.
TB: Exactly. Yeah, I’m so glad you said that. That’s one of the things I keep coming back to with the work. When I looked at your work I knew you’d have women there. They have some type of edge or they’re kind of strong, but there’s still like moments where they’re feminine, too, or there are people who look very upright, and they still have this vulnerability to them. So, it does work in business, but I also think it’s something to do in your art, too, like you can’t have a flat person, even if they’re on a canvas.
SK: Yeah, especially in the content, like, even though it’s very important to show joy and happiness. I don’t wanna take away realities, and the reality is a lot of the time many of us do feel defeated or burnt out, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not beautiful and that we can’t smile, or that the road ahead isn’t gonna get better. I want my work to do a combination of that.
TB: So what feeds you? What keeps you sustained in doing your work?
SK: Like, the drive?
TB: Anything. It’s up to you, the gamut. What keeps you motivated?
SK: To see change. That’s the biggest thing. To see change. Every time I see a story about an unnecessary shooting or unnecessary murder or violence, I go back to thinking this is happening because we don’t appreciate each other’s differences. We don’t value each other as different people. The only way to do that is to continue to put different ways of people seeing that out there.
SK: We can’t rely on media, and we can’t rely on magazines. There is finally some television and some writing and books and stuff that are coming out, but it’s usually from creative individuals, not big organizations or companies. So, for me, that’s really the driving force in really trying to change the way people see each other, so there’s more value. And it’s like, just let go of all this nonsense from the past. Understand it – and I say that when I think about who’s doing the killing, and I say that when I think about police officers that are killing young black boys. They need to let go of everything they’ve been taught as far as all that hate and everything, and understand people, and understand the years of struggle that people have gone through, and try to meet each other somewhere in that understanding so that this shit isn’t happening.
TB: And I keep thinking about that, too, because it’s like there are so many ways to solve problems that people are automatically jumping to the most extreme conclusions. Sometimes, it’s police, sometimes it’s young people and how they interact with each other, sometimes it’s people who haven’t considered all the options that they have. You know, when we talked earlier about Chicago being so segregated, I don’t think it’s just race, and I don’t think it’s just economics. It’s about feeling like you have access to ideas and choices.
SK: Okay, I agree with that.
TB: When we talk about the creative individuals, they’re creating that access in some ways.
TB: I just wish it was something that people in other occupations took more advantage of.
TB: You talked about that you were doing business and marketing and that kind of thing, and you ended up teaching your bosses, and at a certain point, people gotta be willing to take that on for themselves.
SK: In that space I just got tired. I was the only woman of color that was considered a professional because they didn’t considered the administrative assistant a professional.
TB: Which it is.
SK: I actually ended up bringing her onto my team cause I needed help, and there was nobody else, and now she’s working in the professional realm, which is amazing. I was the only woman of color, and I just got tired of being the person that was put on the African American project, and the Asian project and the Latino project, and I was like, I cannot be the only one. You guys need to hire more people. What’s the deal? Then when it came to teaching things that had nothing to do with culture but was more about technology, I was like, this is fucking ridiculous. I’m doing this, I’m doing that, I’m doing this, I’m doing that, and I ask for more pay, and they’d be like, “You can give yourself whatever title you want.”
TB: Right, even though the number of accounts probably increased as a result of all your work.
SK: Yeah, cause I was working till two in the morning several days a week, and I definitely wasn’t leaving at five or six, definitely leaving closer to somewhere between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. So, when the opportunity came to consider art as a career and those commissions came in, I jumped at it. It’s like, what do I have to lose, I know what it’s like to live with nothing. I’ve never had a backup plan. I just do it. When you are the only thing that you can rely on to make sure you eat and have a roof over your head, you will do what it takes.
TB: It also simplifies some things.
SK: You realize what is a want and what is a need. You find that you can do unbelievable things. And that fear starts to disappear because you have no other choice but to let it go. It’s either you let go of this fear, or you don’t eat or don’t pay your rent.
TB: True. We can talk about the exhibit, I know you’re still working on it so it’s still in development. Is it going to be all glass pieces, or a mixture?
SK: My show in April is a mixture. There will be a couple stained glass pieces, probably about three. I have two pretty much done. There’s gonna be, I believe, four layered glass pieces that will show more of the layers of identity and how people physically change…I think people who relate to those individuals will easily catch it, but for those who have never been in the shoes of the people I am portraying, I’m really trying to figure out how do I help them tell the story they’re trying to tell. So, I’m putting together a lot more narrative illustrations than I’ve ever done in any of my shows.
TB: Which is cool.
SK: Yeah, I’m super excited about it. I keep thinking about traditional artwork from artists in Thailand or Japan. And just how the backgrounds are like super filled with all these characters doing different things. And that’s kind of where the inspiration for the background is coming from right now.
TB: That’s cool. That could be really huge and epic. You make life hard for yourself.
SK: It’s a lot to do, but you know that’s me. Once I’m like that feels good, I’m doing it. I just get down to doing it so….
TB: I think it’s like a different level of concentration when you start changing your scope that’s exciting, too.
SK: My goal as an artist is really to try to get to that point. Right now I find myself juggling so many like a combination of commissions and my own work that I wanna do.
TB: I was wondering about that. Have you been able to pare down more progressively since you’ve been able to grow as independent artist?
SK: Yeah, I’ve been able to pare down commissions. As I continue to grow, my prices have thankfully gone up, especially for murals, but that’s always that challenge of trying to keep my work affordable. So right now, that’s where that new model comes in. What do I need to do for my practice without following or focusing on the rules of the art world to sell and move my work so that I can do more of it and still be able to know that it’s going into the homes and places of the people that I want it to live in. That’s where I’m at right now in the business side of my work. It’s letting go of like all this stuff you’ve heard and all the opinions that people say. No, this is my business. I’m the entrepreneur. How do I wanna do it? Fuck all the rules.
TB: Well, when you think about it, it’s like just steps away from the art world. Think about the business world, think about how many business people just do what they wanna do. That’s really what artists wanna do, but they don’t want to exploit and hurt people to do it necessarily.
SK: Right and then there’s so many opinions and there’s this very specific path that has been in place for years and years about how you’re supposed to do things and how your work’s gradually supposed to increase per square inch and price, and you get caught up in that.
TB: That’s a formula that benefits the people who usually make money off artists.
SK: Yeah, right. Right exactly. And then they turn around and sell it at an auction or something and make more money than I ever made off of it, and it’s like no I want people to buy my work that are gonna keep it, not just try to flip it.
TB: Like Jay-Z saying that in “The Story of O.J.”
SK: He bought a piece for 1 million, and then it was worth 8 million or something. He gave it to the children.
TB: But what’s in the picture? What are your children gonna look at, and how are they gonna feel? We never get that story.
SK: As somebody who can own a Basquiat, is it more valuable to flip it and make the money off it, or for your kids to see one of the most amazing African-American painters of our time? In their home. I’d rather have that.
TB: On top of that, this person struggled to make this art, and if this child wanted to be an artist, they never need to struggle to do it. They may have different struggles, but not necessarily the same, you know?
SK: Totally, yeah.
TB: It’s a deep conversation, the more you think about it. How do we constantly have these conversations about commodification? I always go back to Lewis Hyde’s The Gift.
TB: The art doesn’t come from a place that you put a price tag on it. It really doesn’t, but you do need to figure out ways to live.
SK: It’s true because the minute you put that price tag on it, it starts to change the meaning of the work, even for you as an artist. So the more that I’ve grown into my career, I’ve been thinking more about how I’m gonna adjust and change things, so that I’m doing exactly what I wanna do without needing commissions and without needing other things to continue to sustain myself and insure that my work is going where I want it to go.
TB: Are you doing pieces in the new show where there’s more texture in it? I was wondering because I was like when you think about murals or even just the couple paintings that are up right here, I’m like yeah, it’s not the same. So is that a new direction, and I wasn’t quite sure.
SK: It’s a direction I’ve been playing with since 2013 when I started putting fabric in my work.
TB: So relatively recent.
SK: Yeah, it’s relatively recent, and I enjoy it. I love how it brings the character to life. In a different way than even, you know, the best realistic painting. I think adding actual fabric in my opinion just really brings them to life in a different way.
TB: It seems like they could step out.
SK: Right, right. So, I think, well, I know that I’m definitely going to continue to do that but I think I’m even considering looking at some paintings I’ve done in the past, and maybe bringing them back out and exploring adding to them. I break that rule all the time. People always say, “You gotta leave it alone so people see your progression.” I’m like, whatever. I still own it, I can do whatever the fuck I want with it.
TB: When you really look at it, it’s material and you can change the material to do what you want.
SK: It’s still in my inventory. I can do what I want with it.
TB: Right! You’re gonna have pieces sometimes that you’ll feel like it’s not doing what I want it to do.
SK: Right, right. Or it’s lost something. It needs something. And if that’s what it is, then yeah. I mean I’m not gonna go in like I gotta add fabric to all these things but there’s a couple pieces that I can think of from my past inventory that I still have that I think would be more powerful if I add some texture to it. Make them a little more three-dimensional. So I think I’ll definitely explore that. I’d be curious to see how people react to them when I show them again.
TB: It makes people say, “Oh my goodness, so everything could change.” You know?
TB: Whether it’s philosophically or like they think they’re gonna get one thing, and then they show up and it’s oh! So they have to pay attention and stay abreast, which I think is a really smart thing to do, creative, and it’s kind of like keeping people on their toes.
SK: Yeah, alright. I don’t wanna be predictable.
TB: But you talked about journaling earlier. I used to work for the late Elizabeth Murray’s husband, another poet in New York. She journaled every day and sketched. She’d do these huge pieces as big as the wall, and I’d see this little tiny sketch on a page just days before.
SK: Wow, that’s amazing.
TB: In terms of cutting some of the pieces, people who would cut it to her specifications, then she would paint. But as far as journaling, how does journaling feed what you’re doing right now?
SK: For the most part, it helps me to organize my thoughts. When I’m painting, I’m replaying a lot of the conversations I’ve had that relate to the piece or things that I’ve read about or heard. Sometimes, I just need to stop and write so that my mind is in the space that it needs to be in. It also helps me to stay on point and on direction just because we’re hit with so much every day that when life experience influences your work, it’s easy to be like, oh, now I need to create about this. Then you forget what you’re doing at the moment, so journaling just really helps me to process my thoughts and make sure that I’m staying on track, and recognize how the content or the experience impacted me. I don’t write that often but the few times that I have written, people have really enjoyed it, so I’m trying to do that more often. Because as you said, I don’t really have many words, or I don’t share many words.
TB: Well, when you’re speaking you have good things to say.
SK: Thank you. But with that sometimes I find that maybe I explain the background of what’s going into it more when I write about it. I don’t start off with the intention of sharing it, it’s usually just for me.
TB: Oh really?
SK: Sometimes, I go back to it and think maybe it’s good for people to read this or be moved by it. Several years ago, I did a show where I had taken the notes that I had written about the pieces I was working on, and I put them up on the wall next to it.
SK: A woman came up to me at the exhibit and she asked, “These are notes that you wrote while painting?” And I said yeah. She was like, “I love this. I start to imagine you at the studio and I just get a better sense of what the process was and what you were thinking about, and I love it.” I haven’t done that too much since then, but I might do a little bit of that for the show.
TB: I hope so. The text should complement the show, it should say something that’s in relation to what’s actually on the wall.
SK: Right. Right.
TB: For example, this exhibit of Gwendolyn Brooks’ archives two summers ago at the Poetry Foundation. She made journals where she would put different versions of her poems. Sometimes she’d tape the new version over the old one, or she’d put parenthetical comments around it like, “I wrote this poem about a young man I was dating before my husband;” “I wrote this poem in this year, and I met my husband this year” – like she knew, after she was gone, if somebody got these papers she wanted them to explicitly know certain facts or opinions she had about it, and she didn’t agree with all the critics who wrote about her. It’s a very powerful way not just for people to get an insight to your process, but to get an insight into you and why you’re even doing this in the first place.
SK: I agree. Especially once you start exhibiting outside the city you’re from, people aren’t surrounded by all these murals or whatever. Yeah, it’s a great way for them to learn a little bit about you. It’s something that I really want to try to do something more. Also cause my memory’s not that good.
TB: Right, you can’t remember everything.
SK: Then it’s like I know what inspired me to start this, and then a month goes by and I come back to it and I’m like, where was I at? Oh, let me look at my notes…
TB: And Sam Kirk from five years ago is not gonna know Sam Kirk in 2019. Or vice versa, you won’t be who you were in 2014.
SK: Right, yeah, I think it’s fun to read notes that you wrote about yourself or about the work back then. So I’m hoping to do more of it.
Featured Image: Sam Kirk, Kali, 2019. Stained glass portrait of a woman in varying shades of blues, browns, yellows, and creams. Image courtesy of artist.
Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue as well as the chapbooks 7 x 7: kwansabas and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, and Poetry magazine. She is part of the MFA faculty at Chicago State University and Stonecoast – University of Southern Maine. When she’s not teaching, Tara works with dedicated teams at Another Chicago Magazine and The Langston Hughes Review as Poetry Editor. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.