Lofts and Loss

When I saw Sam Kirk at a group show in Pilsen, I immediately picked her out from the crowd. It was October 12th, and the private studios at the Cermak Center had opened all four floors of their loft space for a Chicago Artists Month group show. The crowd was your typical Second Friday set–a range of ages, but a uniform sense of savoir-fair throughout. These were people who are comfortable around contemporary art. They know what to do with it. Due to the preponderance of perfectly timed pauses before each piece, and the number of the articulate but soft conversations, it became difficult to figure out who produced the art and who was here to consume it. A bit of awkward asking around, “So, are you an artist here?” or “Is this by chance your work?” was necessary.

But with Sam I just knew. This was her studio, her space. While everyone else in the top floor loft meandered around, Sam stood in a fixed, but casual stance in front of her work. Her posture was protective, but not possessive. Though open and friendly, she had a command of the space that was just slightly defensive.

Sam Kirk is a multidisciplinary artist, as Chicago-based as is possible to be. She has dark wavy hair, arms covered with intricate tattoos, and a sharp pair of glasses. Her style is indexical; she looks like she’d be ready to whip out a set of paints at a moment’s notice. Originally from Bridgeport, she graduated from Columbia College and worked in advertising for seven years before entering the local art scene. Her work has been shown in the Elephant Room Gallery and the DuSable Museum. Sam moves between painting and illustration, and also graphic, t-shirt, tattoo, and architectural design. Her most recent project is Bucktown’s newest restaurant, The Art of Chicken. A true multidisciplinary work, Sam developed everything from the logo and interior design to the restaurant’s playful murals and custom wood counters.

Sam’s paintings are bright and loud. Exaggerated scales and vibrant colors run from series to series. She paints the city, but more so she paints the people in it. Part cityscape, part portrait, many of her paintings feature a single character made dazzling against looming uniform skyscrapers in the background.

Of all her dramatic paintings, I was most drawn to a piece called “Leave Behind.” A beleaguered artist, blues and greens almost dripping off his face, totes a wheelbarrow of colorful houses. Behind him rise the uniform grey towers of the city. One tower is labeled with the sign “Lofts.” Another labeled as “NEW Lofts.” I asked Sam to just tell me a little bit about this piece.

“My work usually raises a question more than it does tell a story,” she stated carefully, taking time to think over each word. “Leave Behind,” along with five other acrylic paintings, is part of a series on gentrification called “The Foundation.”

“[The series] talks about the changing landscapes of neighborhoods. I grew up in Bridgeport. I’ve lived on the South Side of Chicago my whole life. And this piece in particular is meant to talk about how developers and the city are okay with coming into neighborhoods that are working class and just completely wiping out the culture, not paying any mind to the people that…actually built the neighborhood and the culture that’s there.”

“The Foundation” is a striking series. A young woman bears the crushing weight of grey towers. A young girl blindly skips over crushed colorful houses. A blue collared man holds up handfuls of colorful neighborhood as the surrounding grey city threatens to engulf him.

As she says, “The Foundation” is meant to ask some very difficult questions. Questions about why some neighborhoods thrive quickly while others die slowly. Questions about development and its impact on artists and communities. Questions about culture clash, the divide between the North and South Sides. And how community, color, life, and culture interact within their grey urban landscape.

These questions, of course, do not come with neat answers. But as I talked to this South Side artist in her Pilsen artist loft about her series on gentrification, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of hope in her work–that a changing city can be a good thing. The Foundation questions, but it shows the vitality of art in neighborhoods as well.

Sam added, “There are certain neighborhoods on the South Side that are flourishing. Pilsen is one, Hyde Park is another. University Village, I mean we used to call that Jew Town, I did a whole series on that and what it used to look like. It’s night and day, compared to what I experienced as a kid.”Night and day. It certainly can feel that fast. Culture changes quickly. “The Foundation” captures the liminal, transitional moment that occurs when neighborhoods shift from dangerous to trendy. But it doesn’t argue a blanket position on the politics of gentrification. More than asking the question of what’s happening to our neighborhoods, “The Foundation” asks why we can’t have some power over that change.

In “Leave Behind,” the artist-protagonist carts his culture from neighborhood to neighborhood, loft space to loft space. There’s a question of why color can’t seep across the cultural boundaries of neighborhoods, why people have to cart their art up to River North or down to Pilsen. Her protagonist may be a downtrodden artist caught between the forces of neighborhood change, but color still spills across the canvas. It cannot be contained, and that’s a welcome change.

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