Sam Kirk ’05

Artist. Entrepreneur. Activist.

Sam Kirk changed course from advertising pro to full-time artist in 2010—and she hasn’t looked back.

In 2010, Sam Kirk ’05 left a successful career in advertising to pursue art full time. Her work, which inspires pride for underrepresented communities, ranges from mixed media to large-scale murals. She’s received commissions from clients including Don Julio, Red Bull, Toyota and the City of Chicago.

Kirk is currently the Managing Creative Director of Provoke Culture, an online art collective that sells work by artists who celebrate culture and identity through their work. Her latest project was participating in a mural art exchange to celebrate 35th anniversary of Chicago’s partnership with Casablanca, Morocco, which became a sister city in 1982. 

Here, Kirk talks about her shift from advertising pro to full-time fine artist.

On when she realized she could paint for a living:

I’d been working in advertising for about seven years. I had an office, and the company had given me some corporate art that I hated. I took it all down and put up my own paintings. The people I worked with really liked my work—someone even set up a show in the building.

It had never been on my radar to become a fine artist, but once people started buying artwork, I thought, “Maybe I’ll put some work in a gallery.” I did, and it took off from there. I was featured in Chicago Artists Month in 2010 and received several commissions.

On taking the plunge into full-time artmaking:

It was a strange time, because I had just been featured as one of the top six account executives at Draftfcb. My advertising career was in a really, really good place, and I decided to leave. Most people thought I was nuts.

I thought, “I know I love advertising. I know I’m good at it. If the art doesn’t work, then I can always come back.” So far so good. I left in summer of 2010, and I’ve been doing art full time ever since.

On using her marketing skills as an artist:

Today, my work is much more personal than selling laundry detergent or a can of soda but [my marketing background] has helped me with many of the business components of running a business and selling art. I know how to plan budgets, prepare proposals, and work with brands and corporations while remaining true to myself in the kind of work I want to produce. I appreciate my marketing background, but the work I do today—commercial, community or privately—is more satisfying. It’s more about a connection with people and their culture. 

On one of her favorite works, a 15-by-40-foot mural in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood:

I finished a mural with friend and artist Sandra Antongiorgi called Weaving Cultures, which celebrates women and multicultural perspectives. (Listen to her interview with WBEZ about the mural.) It’s the first time I’ve collaborated with any other artist on that scale, and the outcome was amazing.

Sandra and I are both women of color, and there are things that come up in conversation about our communities that we wish didn’t. There is constant discrimination on simple things, like our hair or the way our noses and lips look. This is who we are, and we wanted to make sure the representations of the women in the mural captured these features while highlighting their culture in a really beautiful way. 

After painting some of the women on the wall, we thought, “Maybe her lips should be different, or she should have a head wrap, or we should include an older woman instead of all young women.” The sketch that we developed is drastically different than what’s on the wall. It was a very organic process.