Installation view, Sam Kirk Alchemy of Us: Journey of Identity at the Chicago Art Department.

Chicago-based visual artist Sam Kirk culminates her eight-month-long Core Residency at the Chicago Art Department with an exhibition exploring gender visibility, “The Alchemy of Us: A Journey of Identity.” Gender visibility was the focus of her residency, as a part of CAD’s pilot Core Residency program exploring contemporary conversations in themes from immigration to justice. The show features work that Kirk describes in her artist statement as going “beyond gender.” As an LGBTQ person and person of color, much of Kirk’s artwork deals with the intersectionality of identity. As much as the residency was about making and exhibiting new work, it was also deeply rooted in research. In her artist statement, Kirk says she conducted interviews with individuals of various identities and gathered research from articles, books, and documentaries specific to the struggles within LGBTQ Communities of Color globally. Kirk draws from global practices like the genderless fashion movement in Japan or the celebration of trans people in Juchitán de Zaragoza, a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Kirk writes,

“Throughout my life, I have been interested in the routes taken as we discover our identity. I am curious about the factors that contribute to our growth and the experiences that impact our ability to become our truest selves. This interest stems partially from my personal experience as a biracial, queer woman, growing up within marginalized communities.”

The interviews she conducted became a crucial inspiration for some of her newest work, in her latest medium—glass. While much of her past work has been two-dimensional and large scale, like the many murals she’s created around the city, here, she has mastered a new skill and expanded her practice. The new works are made from a laborious process using tinted glass that she either hand cut, pieced and soldered together, or layered her paintings by laying multiple pieces of painted glass on top of one of another. The fabrication can be seen as a metaphor, resembling how identities are formed and stories are shared, multifaceted, and layered.

Sam Kirk, Kali 2019, Stained Glass, 38 x 64 inches.

Her new mosaic-like glass pieces carry the same signature aesthetic as her two-dimensional works, with the patchwork faces on her figures meant to mimic multiple shades of skin tones, and as a nod to her own multicultural upbringing. This new work reinforces the thematic aspects of strong and empowered intergenerational women, with strong expressions, down to the hair and flair and the stance. The stained glass pieces, like “Kali,” appear deity-like, almost like something you would see in a spiritual space.

Throughout the exhibition, some women are singled out in stand-alone pieces, while others capture the performativity of gender. In one work, an older more traditionally dressed woman helps to fix the attire of a younger more masculine presenting woman or “Flor de Toloache”, mariachi women dressed in the colorful uniforms with sugar skull imagery adorning their sleeves. Then there are those that are placed on top of black backgrounds with a bustling community and scene drawn beneath the main figure, portraying how communities impact our identities as well. One striking piece has a woman with blue hair and pink rollers jutting out from the canvas, on top of a backdrop of what appears to be black and white figures populating North Halsted Street, with recognizable text reading “Roscoe’s” and “Howard Brown.” It’s fitting that Kirk would choose to single out this place, which is colloquially known as Boystown, the historically LGBTQ neighborhood of Chicago and the Midwest. Kirk’s relationship with queer culture goes beyond her own identity, and into using her art as a catalyst for activism. The show features a sculptural piece, “Feed the Meter: Help Us Help Homeless Youth,” a painted parking meter, which was originally a part of Ava’s Change4Youth initiative in Andersonville where passersby could “feed the meter” and donate to help LGBTQ youth homelessness.    

Sam Kirk, Be one with yourself even if you are alone2019. Mixed Media on Glass, 24 x 24 inches. Image courtesy of Sam Kirk.

While Kirk has had commercial success throughout her growing art career working with brands, or painting murals in other countries, she has always stayed true to her roots, the support of marginalized communities. The authenticity of her intersecting identities that make each of us different remains a common thread at the core of her work and the stories she shares through her art.