Colum Alum Spotlight: Sam Kirk '05

In 2010, Sam Kirk ’05 had a successful advertising. Then she jumped to creating art full time, using her talent to spotlight marginalized communities. 


In 2010, Sam Kirk ’05 had a successful advertising career, while creating art on the side. Then she took a leap and started creating art full time. Today, she’s killing it. Her vibrant illustrations, paintings, and murals spotlight LGBTQ identity and marginalized communities—and her work has also become a place to explore the overlap between her own queer identity and multiracial upbringing.

In her art career, Kirk has received commissions from brands like Don Julio, Red Bull, and the City of Chicago. She’s sold work to raise money for Chicago LGBTQ nonprofits like Center on Halsted and Project Fierce. You can keep an eye out for her work on the street, too: She recently co-created a mural called Weaving Cultures, which features five women of underrepresented communities on a 14-by-40 foot wall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

“I want to produce work that has a purpose,” says Kirk. “All of my work is about starting a dialogue around topics that need to be addressed more.”


What went into your decision to switch from advertising to making art full time?

I was really at the top of the game in my advertising career. At the same time, my art career—which was a hobby—was starting to really take off. I was getting many requests for commissions and public art projects that were becoming more than just something I could do on the weekend or after work. 

I was looking for something that used my creativity differently and challenged me in a way that I hadn’t been challenged. I never really thought I’d be an artist for a living. So I decided, let’s see how that goes, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll go back into advertising.  Now, it’s been seven years.


This is our Pride issue of Columbia Connection, and you’ve talked about queer representation in your artwork. How do the ideas of gender and identity play into your art?

For a long time, I avoided talking about being queer or LGBTQ identity in my work. I think it was because I dealt with a lot of rejection from society and the families of my partners. I didn’t really know how to talk about it in my work. Once I began producing work on a full-time basis—ideas developed on how I wanted to share this part of myself in my work—I started to feel like it was necessary. 

Because even though I was talking about culture, there’s a whole part of me—and a whole part of a queer community—that I felt wasn’t being represented in the art world, specifically for people of color.


Why does representation like this matter?

Often we go into art museums and don’t see this kind of representation.  So, it makes marginalized people feel unseen. 

I also think art provides an opportunity to start conversations, heal and help people feel welcome or proud. Public art is a perfect space to talk about [these things] because it reaches people who don’t visit these institutions or spaces.

I want people to feel proud about who they are.  My focus is on making sure that I’m putting work out there that celebrates underrepresented people—so that we are present in more spaces.

There’s also the challenge of being queer in traditional cultures—and getting people to acknowledge and respect it. We should be able to celebrate our full selves.


Want to see Kirk’s art? She’s exhibiting and appearing at the following places this summer:

-Memoria Presente at The National Museum of Mexican Art through August 13

-Project Respect at the DuSable Museum of African American History through October 31

-Speaking at The United State of Women Conference July 15-16 

-Featured artist on Chicago-themed reusable bags created through an Xfinity partnership that will be distributed at events throughout the summer 

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