She Returned to the Scene of a Hate Crime, and this Happened: With Artist, Sam Kirk

Brad Shreve [00:00:00]:

This is queer. We are. What do you do when you’re the victim of a vicious hate crime that could easily have been fatal? Well, if you’re Sam Kirk, you eventually leave your comfy career, strike out as an artist, and return to that place that is an ugly memory and use your art to make it something beautiful the community can enjoy. The beauty Sam gave her former community as one of the many murals she created across the globe and has impacted many lives. She’s become so known and respected for her art, one massive piece was displayed for days in the center of the universe. Well, Times Square is the center of the universe, if you ask many New Yorkers. On Queer We Are, I interview some of the most interesting LGBTQ people who are living fulfilled and positive lives. They’re keeping the faith and moving forward when many of us are struggling to hang on. Yes, they face many of the challenges you and I do, but they have something that keeps their hope alive. You can get that hope, too. So, sit back and enjoy some fun conversation and maybe get some inspiration from it, too. And this is the place to find it because I’m Brad Shreve, my guest is Sam Kirk, and Queer We Are. Sam Kirk, the last time we spoke, you were painting a mural for Disney World, and I believe it was of their diverse characters, am I right?

Sam Kirk [00:01:53]:

I was actually showcasing some of my fine art at Walt Disney World. Oh, the last time we spoke .Yeah, I’ve done a couple of things there, but yeah, the last time we spoke, I was part of the International Festival of the Arts. Which comes it’s their annual fine art festival. So I was showcasing three different pieces as part of the exhibition.

Brad Shreve [00:02:16]:

Well, actually, that’s better. I’m glad to hear that because for some reason, I thought you told me you were painting the diverse Disney characters, which they’re getting better. They’re not great at it, but they all seem to have, like Aladdin spoke like he came from Chicago, but that’s a whole different story. That’s a different podcast altogether.

Sam Kirk [00:02:38]:


Brad Shreve [00:02:40]:

Well, on top of your Disney World, your list of public murals throughout the US. Is impressive. And I looked at many pictures, but it would be no surprise I didn’t have any chance to see all of them. But one that did impress me is the 350 foot mural you were selected to paint in Times Square for the closing of World Pride. What year was that?

Sam Kirk [00:03:04]:

So that was for World Pride 2019. It was a 350 foot installation, but it was artwork printed onto vinyl, and it wrapped the entire main stage of Times Square. And it was up for an entire week during the final World Pride ceremony. And I love that piece so much. One, because of where it was at and what was represented in the work, but also what we did with it afterwards. I actually asked them to save those pieces. Usually they cut it down, throw it away. We saved them, and we cut them up into different pieces. I think we had probably close to 20 different pieces, the end of it, and we donated them to different LGBTQ nonprofits across the United States. And so now those spaces have something that looks like a mural that I created, because they hang them up, usually interior on a wall, and they get a piece of it. I mean, they were huge. They’re, like, 8ft by 32ft. So they can cover a significant space. Like one piece.

Brad Shreve [00:04:03]:

Well, yeah. Well, the whole thing was huge. So the difference between an installation and a mural is the installation. You still painted it, but it’s a temporary thing. Is that right?

Sam Kirk [00:04:12]:

No, so I didn’t paint this piece. It was printed. It was all printed onto a mesh vinyl wrap.

Brad Shreve [00:04:18]:


Sam Kirk [00:04:18]:

To paint that would have taken us just, like, a ton of time to do. And so it’s New York. Everything happens fast. It’s got to go up fast, it’s got to come down fast. So they decided to print. Yeah. And then they installed it. New York happens.

Brad Shreve [00:04:36]:

To have it displayed on Times Square for a week. What more could you ask for?

Sam Kirk [00:04:40]:

Seriously? I was hoping for one of those five second ads. And the funny thing is, they didn’t even tell us because my wife and I collaborated on some of the pieces. They didn’t even tell us what the execution was going to be. We knew that they were going to use the artwork in some form, but I could have never imagined that it was going to be up for an entire week to that capacity. And so, I mean, ten times better than just, like, a five second I was like, this is awesome. This is amazing. It was fantastic.

Brad Shreve [00:05:10]:

So it was a surprise completely.

Sam Kirk [00:05:12]:

We knew they were going to use the work, but had no idea to what scale or how long. Nothing. We had no idea. And then I proposed that Friday before Pride, before the parade, and we happened to be in Times Square looking for an outfit for a celebration, and we’re like, oh, my God, is that our artwork? And we’re like, Wait a minute, that’s our artwork. And we completely forgot about shopping. Ran to where the installation was, and we’re, like, just in awe. We were shocked at how big it was. Like, it felt like it never ended. We just kept walking and walking and walking, and it was fantastic. Seeing the reaction of so many folks looking at it was phenomenal. For so long within my public art career, I had been trying to get more LGBTQ specific work into the public space on a grand scale. And a lot of times there was a rejection, either because they felt like the neighborhood wasn’t ready, there’s a whole list of reasons, and this work really reflected a global view of our community. And it was just wonderful to see folks look at this woman that’s 12ft tall in a hijab that’s completely wrapped in rainbow colors, and to see so many different folks from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures and resonate with that. And it’s, to this day, one of my favorite installations. Just from watching the reaction, it was fantastic.

Brad Shreve [00:06:48]:

As exciting as that must have been, there is one mural that you’ve painted that has touched me a lot more, and I’m going to guess you as well, and you’re going to know it. It’s titled Fierce, and it’s in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Am I right that it’s pretty emotional.

Sam Kirk [00:07:08]:

Yeah, emotional for a couple of reasons. One, Pilsen is a neighborhood where, unfortunately, 20 years or so ago, I was a victim of a really significant hate crime, and I was put in the hospital. And in many ways, I probably could have lost my life. But it was a huge turning point for me as a young adult. Up until that point, I had been really open to exploring and kind of living my life out. Even though this was in the late 90s, it wasn’t really something that was necessarily accepted. We definitely didn’t have the rights that we do today, even though we’re still working on many, many of those. And so it kind of put this negative space in my mind, in my heart, whenever I was in that area. You kind of can’t help it. You drive through these streets, and that was a memory that always came up. And so up until that point in painting public artwork that did celebrate the LGBTQ community, it was always in designated. Like here in Chicago, we have areas where it’s common to see LGBTQ events, and I have a mural in those neighborhoods, but this is a neighborhood that I called home to and that a lot of my other murals happen to be in. It’s a huge arts community, and I just thought, man, I would really love to have an LGBTQ focused piece on the South Side. And so even though it was emotional and challenging, I proposed it, it was accepted. We painted it. And throughout the process, I was, like, bracing myself for vandalism. I still kind of had this assumption that the neighborhood hadn’t changed and that it was going to be tagged as soon as we finished it. And to my surprise, it wasn’t, and it still hasn’t been. It was actually the opposite. I received tons of messages in my inbox from folks who were thanking me for putting this piece up and telling their stories about how long they had lived in that community and how hard it was for them to feel recognized and how this contributed to that. And so emotional for myself, for sure, but then also for so many other people. And it’s just fantastic to be able to paint something like that, that is deeply personal for me, but also to see how it impacts the larger community and even folks that aren’t LGBTQ or part of our community, they even came and commented, and one older gentleman had said, this shows how we have evolved as a community. The fact that this is here, this shows how we have evolved as a community. And that made me really happy. It just made me really, you know, Chicago, while it’s known for many things, it’s also a very segregated city. And sometimes those boundaries make it difficult to showcase the layers of who you are in certain areas.

Brad Shreve [00:10:14]:

20 years ago, that mural probably wouldn’t be staying the way it is right now.

Sam Kirk [00:10:20]:

Absolutely not. There’s no way. No, 20 years ago when I was at that point in my life, no way. I don’t think I would have even been able to finish it based on a lot of the discrimination and harassment that I received back then. Just even in the process of creating it, I would have been shut down.

Brad Shreve [00:10:40]:

Isn’t it nice that art isn’t just pretty, but it really does change hearts and minds?

Sam Kirk [00:10:46]:

Yes. Yes, I think about that so often. I was completing a project to celebrate another person in our community here in Chicago. And somebody had asked me once well, the interviewer had asked me, do you feel like art has saved your life? And I began to cry when she asked me that question because I hadn’t really thought about it in that way. And I was like, oh, my God. Yes. And I think about that piece Fierce in that way because it allowed me to kind of have closure to that event that had happened in my life. Now I can drive through that neighborhood, and I don’t really think about the negative things that had happened. I think about so many of the other positive things that have happened there. And, yeah, that mural kind of gave me closure and so many other people joy.

Brad Shreve [00:11:32]:

So it was healing for you.

Sam Kirk [00:11:33]:

Fantastic. Yeah. Oh, yeah, definitely.

Brad Shreve [00:11:36]:

Now, the person asked if art had changed your life. You actually worked in advertising for some time. Were you an artist or a designer?

Sam Kirk [00:11:44]:

No, I worked in client management, so I did account management and some strategy and production, a little bit of production, which is kind of creative, but mostly client management.

Brad Shreve [00:11:57]:

Did you enjoy that work or did you feel lost?

Sam Kirk [00:12:00]:

I enjoyed it because I didn’t realize that I was supposed to be doing creative work as far as my calling the work that I was supposed to be doing. And I enjoyed just being around so many creatives and the process of developing anything creative work, it was fascinating to me. And in many ways, I’m really happy that I wasn’t a creative in advertising because I think the process and the extreme deadlines and the amount of rejection that happens in coming up with ad campaigns and ideas probably would have burnt me out. And I don’t know that I’d be doing what I’m doing right now if I was a creative in advertising. Additionally, the role that I had in client management tremendously helped with my career as an entrepreneur. Today I understand contracts, negotiation, licensing. I have a management team that I work with now, and thankfully they handle all of the negotiations. But for the first eight years when it was just me by myself, I was doing all of that work. And I felt confident in asking for more money and asking to be compensated fairly. I think in large part because of the skills that I gained in advertising for commercial projects. In specific, I had a clear understanding of what those budgets should look like. So I appreciate it. I appreciate the skills and experience that I picked up during that career.

Brad Shreve [00:13:26]:

Sounds like it’s what you needed at that particular time.

Sam Kirk [00:13:28]:

Oh, yeah. And it’s contributed to what I do now.

Brad Shreve [00:13:32]:

I write now, but back when I was younger, I did a lot more visual arts. I did sketching, I did painting. It was what I wanted to pursue as a career. And I thought, well, what am I going to do? It’s kind of hard to make it as an artist. So when I went to school, took commercial art, and I hated it because it’s a lot of drawing lines and being dictated to as to what they want. And like you said, there’s a lot of rejection, there’s timelines, and it just didn’t feel creative. There was obviously some creativity to it. I don’t want to put anybody down that works in advertising, but certainly not the freedom as just sitting down and painting something I feel from the heart. So I just decided that wasn’t for me and switched to English.

Sam Kirk [00:14:17]:

Yeah, I understand.

Brad Shreve [00:14:20]:

So it’s probably good you were more on executive level.

Sam Kirk [00:14:24]:

Yes, definitely.

Brad Shreve [00:14:27]:

Well, going back to Pilsen, please share what it was like. I think you said it was a mixed neighborhood. What was it like going and growing up in Chicago’s, west and East Side?

Sam Kirk [00:14:38]:

Well, so I grew up on Chicago’s west and south side. Is that okay? Is that noise? There’s a little noise in the background behind me. Is that okay?

Brad Shreve [00:14:47]:

That’s quite all right. And, listener, sometimes you’ll hear some birds. Sam has a baby that’s sleeping inside, so she is talking from the patio, which I get.

Sam Kirk [00:14:59]:

Yeah, I grew up on the west and South Side of Chicago and all over. I think we probably lived in like eleven neighborhoods between the time I was born and moved out of the house. And so we jumped around a lot. For me, it was great. It turned out to be wonderful because I think that it really contributed to the work that I do today. So I grew up in a mixed household. My mother is Afro Latina. My father is of European heritage, both American born here in the States and growing up in Chicago, our family wasn’t always accepted. There were always questions about my mother in particular because most of us have a lighter skin complexion than she does. And so I realized at an early age that we were different and navigating the world was going to be different and growing up and then realizing my identity as a queer person, I was like, okay, so this is another layer that is different. And I think moving around as much as we did on the South Side really allowed me to be curious about exploring other neighborhoods and exploring other areas. As I continued to grow, I just started to navigate the rest of the city. And so it became bouncing around the South Side to bouncing around the city to bouncing around the country. And now just being an avid traveler and really appreciating the cultures of the world and just wanting to understand more from a personal level with folks, I always want to engage with people directly, not necessarily read a book or watch a movie, which I do do, but I enjoy that in person human interaction and experience. And yeah, I think bouncing around, moving around the South Side initially ignited that for me.

Brad Shreve [00:16:55]:

So you had the struggles of being from a mixed race family and then you had to top off that with being queer. What were you thinking?

Sam Kirk [00:17:03]:

I know, right?

Brad Shreve [00:17:06]:

What was your coming out experience like, both with your family and your neighborhood?

Sam Kirk [00:17:12]:

I was outed in high school. Yeah. So I went to an all girls high school and funny enough, my mother thought, I’m going to send them to an all girls high school, so there are no distractions. And then both my sister and I have an identical twin sister. Both my sister and I end up being lesbians. So that backfired. But in high school, well, I started to explore my identity more in high school and started dating girls. And I had passed a note to the girl that I was seeing at the time and the theology teacher, of all people, grabbed it and he decided to read it aloud to class. And so by next period, I was getting all of these looks and wondering why. And this was in the 90s, so I didn’t have a cell phone. Nobody can text me and say, hey, heads up, this is what happened. I was just like, why is everyone looking at me like this? Slowly I figured it out that I was outed. And that was interesting because I was kind of popular. I’m a twin, I played multiple sports. I was really good at art. And so I think my friends were just troubled. Like they were stuck on how to respond to that. I don’t think it went as bad as it could have though. Most of them were like, okay, we don’t know what to do with that. But I think at that point I was end of my sophomore year, we had kind of already gotten to know each other. So how do you hate somebody once you’ve already spent so much time with them? As athletes, we’re on the road. We’re in locker rooms together. We’re doing all these things, and some stuff changed. I stopped changing with them in the locker room because obvious reasons, but I think it could have went much worse than it did. But it didn’t. I’m grateful for that. And while I would have preferred to come out on my own terms, I am grateful for the time that I did come out, because it allowed me to be like, okay, so this is out there now. Everybody at my school knows. At the time, my family didn’t know, so my family ended up learning of it, and I was just grateful because I didn’t feel like I had to hide it anymore. If it didn’t happen that way, I don’t know how long I would have gone before I came out on my own, because growing up on the south side, I had no resources. There was no discussion about the LGBTQ community. I can’t even recall hearing the word gay in my household at any point in time at all, which is kind of funny because my grandfather on my father’s side is gay and we were forbidden to meet him and we were told we were forbidden to meet him because he was racist. And my mother is a black woman. That’s a whole other conversation. I don’t even know where to go with that. I have met him since. One of the main reasons that we weren’t able to meet him was because he’s gay, and my father didn’t know how to deal with that. And I just thought once I figured that out, I was like, wow, this is something that I’m not alone, but I was alone growing up. Like, how unfortunate. But, yeah, I’m grateful for being able to be out all of these years of my life. Most of my life, I have been out.

Brad Shreve [00:20:32]:

Yeah, especially back. You said in the 90s, not many people were coming out at that age. Now, quite frequently, it’s no big deal. And what a horrible thing for a teacher to do. They don’t know your environment. You could have had a family that embraced you, or it could have been a very dangerous situation. So I’m glad it worked out well for you.

Sam Kirk [00:20:51]:

Me too.

Brad Shreve [00:20:51]:

Sounds like in the long run, it was a great thing.

Sam Kirk [00:20:53]:

Me too.

Brad Shreve [00:20:54]:

When did you say, I’m an artist, and that’s what I’ll do? And when you made that decision, was it scary?

Sam Kirk [00:21:01]:

It wasn’t scary. It probably should have been because it was in 2010, and we are also going through a rough financial point in the United States as well. Like, the housing market had crashed in 2008, and so there was all of this going on, and in 2009, I had decided I’m going to start to show my work again. Previous to that, it had been like seven years since I had dabbled in showing work, but I wasn’t planning to show my work to leave my career in advertising. It was just something outside of work that I wanted to do, and I had a very good response from it. And in 2010, I was asked to work with a music venue here in Chicago and complete 15 very large scale original pieces of work and also to do some design work for a house from another client that I had kind of on the side. And between those two commissions, I was like, there’s no way I can continue doing advertising while doing these at the same time. It just so happened that I was also ending a two year program where I was one of the top six account executives at the agency that I was at. And I just had a very different perspective on what my career was going to be in advertising. I didn’t want to continue on the same path that I was going on. Digital marketing was coming into play and I was learning a lot and was working more in new business development and strategy. And I felt like I was doing a lot more reverse mentorship than actually being mentored by the senior executives at the agency that I was at at the time. And so I was just like, how often am I going to get a chance to create artwork for a living? And I decided I’m just going to take this leap of faith. I have a year to make something out of this. I have these two projects to cover my salary for a year. If it works, great. If not, I could always go back to advertising because I was doing pretty well there, and so I didn’t feel like taking a year off was going to make or break my career there. And I decided to take the leap, and here I am 14 years later. So it worked out really well. My supervisor at the time did not believe that it would work out really well. She thought that I’d be back in advertising in no time. But it didn’t take long before I put those advertising skills to work. And I was all over Twitter for a collaboration I had did with the city of Chicago and south by Southwest, and that showed up in the agency. And so she learned that I was doing well also.

Brad Shreve [00:23:46]:

Yeah, I love it when people redefine their lives. And redefining your life does not mean you have to change who you are. So that’s very exciting to hear your story. You mentioned painting. I don’t know if it was a mural on somebody’s house. And that leads me to question, when you do a mural at public events, you usually know that they’re temporary. And I know you do some private art that you sell but I noticed in some commissioned work, they are on private businesses, and some of those are gone because the business was sold. Do you have a sense of loss about that?

Sam Kirk [00:24:23]:

No, I don’t. I believe that completing work in the public space is meant for what happens in the public arena. Right. Like, the artwork is competing with weather. Depending on what seasons the city has, it’s competing with people and what people desire, whether that’s taggers tagging up stuff or people purchasing a property and deciding, I want a different look. I hope that folks enjoy it for the time that it’s there, and I hope that it delivers the message that I intended for the time that it’s there and speaks to people for that moment. But once I’m finished with it, it belongs to the public.

Brad Shreve [00:25:04]:

You remind me of Falling Water. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Falling Water. It’s a Frank Lloyd house that was built in Pennsylvania. Beautiful, large home. Absolutely. I could move in tomorrow despite the fact I hear there’s structural problems. Frank Lloyd Wright was not really as good of an architect. He was good artistically, but not really a good architect. But anyway, that’s beside the point. When I was there, the tour guide told us the house is actually built above a waterfall. And what we were told is, when the Kaufman family that had the house built, when he did the design, they asked Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re like, why is the waterfall not where we can look at it through the window? And he said, Because it won’t be there for very long. You won’t see it anymore. Do you think there’s validity in that?

Sam Kirk [00:25:53]:

Yeah, because you get used to your environment, and if it’s always there, you won’t appreciate it in the same way that you would if you had to leave the house to go sit with it. It becomes almost like a backdrop. Right. And so, yeah, I completely understand that, and I like that perspective.

Brad Shreve [00:26:15]:

In 2021, the Chicago Cubs commissioned you to do a limited edition art. You realize you reached many people you wouldn’t have otherwise, don’t you?

Sam Kirk [00:26:26]:

Oh, yeah, without a doubt.

Brad Shreve [00:26:29]:

How’s that feel?

Sam Kirk [00:26:30]:

Great. I mean, for some of the reasons that you’re mentioning. Right. Like, this is a sport amongst I mean, many sports, we have this issue still where athletes feel like they can’t come out, because sports, whether it’s in the United States or other countries, there’s such a masculine focus on the players and the players living up to what that means. And that persona that’s there that I feel like being part of the LGBTQ community, in some ways, people think that that waters them down or it makes them different, and it’s like, no, it doesn’t. It doesn’t at all. They’re still a kick ass player. They’re still doing great work. You love them still for all the things that they do within the team. So it doesn’t make them different in those ways at all. But, yeah, I definitely realized that I reached a very large community, and in completing that work, I got to see the extreme differences of opinion. When that work was released, there was a lot of people that loved it. There was a lot of people that hated it. Like, hated it, hated it. The comments that were included in some of the social media posts and stuff, I mean, they were direct, referring to me as a sinner and not wanting to bring politics into baseball and all of these things. But I’m grateful for that opportunity, because the more that we push those boundaries, hopefully, the more that things will change.

Brad Shreve [00:28:01]:

Well, Sam, I know you’re on multiple social media. What in the world are you still doing on Twitter? That’s where you’re going to hear that the most.

Sam Kirk [00:28:08]:

The you know, I just look to see all of the platforms because there’s such difference in the people that use different platforms between demographics, age group, all of that. And so I’m always curious to see what the responses are across the board. Yeah.

Brad Shreve [00:28:28]:

And it can happen. I posted something on Instagram today, and I got lambasted by some guy, and I just had a polite response, and I’ll give him time to read it, and then I’ll block him, but I want to make sure he reads my response. So given that it’s a scary world right now, how do you hold on to hope? And I’m going to say, I know you do, or you wouldn’t be painting.

Sam Kirk [00:28:54]:

Yeah, I do, in large part. I think there’s a lot of people in this world that are doing the hard work. Right. We do have some great people in political positions that are really giving their all and doing that work. But also, I do think that the generations that follow us are really going to change some things.

Brad Shreve [00:29:17]:

Sam, it has been so wonderful to talk with you. Folks, if you get a chance to look at her artwork. I highly suggest it, and you can do so because I’m going to put a link to Sam’s website in the show notes. And you can also go over to the website. You can find more information about Sam there. And Sam, I also Sam going to put your social media links. Is there anyone better to follow you than the others?

Sam Kirk [00:29:39]:

Instagram. I probably post the most on Instagram.

Brad Shreve [00:29:42]:

You put your art on Instagram?

Sam Kirk [00:29:43]:


Brad Shreve [00:29:43]:

When you said Instagram before you even said it, I thought, Instagram, she can show her art. So that was my best guess. Well, thank you for being my guest. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

Sam Kirk [00:29:54]:

Thank you, Brad. It’s always a good time. I look forward to the next time we can chat.

Brad Shreve [00:29:58]:

I do, too, Sam.

Previous post
Next post
Related Posts