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Human First • Honorees

Sam Kirk

Sam Kirk is a multidisciplinary artist, who explores culture and identity politics through her creations. Her artwork focuses on a variety of intersections which encompass a call to celebrate differences and enact change. Her paintings include vivid powerful images of women, members of the LGBTQIA community, and those who have historically been underrepresented. Her work celebrates these people and the journeys that have made them who they are.

Throughout her childhood, her family’s frequent moves to a variety of Chicago neighborhoods sparked her fascination with the nuances of the human experience. It was during these moments where she found herself discovering the cultures of the city and sorting through her own identity as a bi-racial, queer woman. Kirk’s artwork, much like her life has been an on-going narrative about how life’s experiences impact our identity. Her vibrant color palette, intricate line-work and layered backgrounds highlight cultural communities via multi-toned figures recalled from memories of her travels throughout the world.

Kirk’s public murals often address social issues, as she intentionally uses the public space to spark dialogue around topics of equality and visibility for women, communities of color, and the LGBTQIA community. She was recently recognized in Forbes Magazine and Oprah Magazine for her public art career, notably, her “Sister Cities” Mural, a commission by World Business Chicago and the City of Casablanca, and a recent installation in Times Square for World Pride 2019. The “Sister Cities” mural was created as a celebration of 35 years of programming between Chicago and Casablanca. She is the first woman and American to participate in their Annual CASAMOUJA Street Art Festival.

During World Pride 2019, Kirk’s work was wrapped around a full block in Times Square. The installation included several figurative works that celebrated the many different faces of the LGBTQ+ community. Her participation in World Pride also included a Tribute mural to Transgender Puerto Rican activist, Victoria Cruz, in the Lower East Side, and an exhibition at the Human Rights Conference. While Kirk has maintained a successful public art career, she has also exhibited throughout the US in galleries and museums. Her artwork is in several notable collections, with a piece about transgender identity added to the permanent collection of the National Museum of Mexican Art.

Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates lives and works in Chicago where he creates work that focuses on space theory and land development, sculpture and performance. In 2010, Gates created the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit platform aimed at galvanizing communities through neighborhood regeneration and the development of educational and arts programming and amenities. Many of the foundation’s initiatives have focused on the revitalization of Chicago’s South Side, creating hubs and archives for black culture, which serve as catalysts for discussions on race, equality, space, and history.

Known for his recirculation of art-world capital, Gates creates works with a focus on the possibility of the “life within things.” Gates smartly upturns art values, land values, and human values. In all aspects of his work, he contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise – one defined by collective desire, artistic agency, and the tactics of a pragmatist.

His current academic affiliations with the University of Chicago; the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; and Colby College, Waterville, Maine, aid the evolution of earlier vocational pursuits in public service, urban planning, and religious studies.

Gates has exhibited and performed at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France (2019); Gropius Bau, Berlin (2019), Sprengel Museum Hannover (2018); Kunstmuseum Basel (2018); National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA (2017); Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada (2016); Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy (2016); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2013); Punta della Dogana, Venice (2013) and dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel (2012). Public collections include Tate Modern, London; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Marciano Art Foundation, Los Angeles.

Gates was the winner of the Artes Mundi 6 prize and was a recipient of the Légion d'Honneur in 2017. He was recently awarded the Nasher Prize for Sculpture 2018, as well as the Urban Land Institute, J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.

Jane M. Saks

Jane M. Saks is an artist, writer, and producer as well as a cultural alchemist, educator, arts advocate, creative collaborator, and activist. Her work challenges and champions issues of gender, sexuality, human rights, race, and power within the worlds of arts and culture, politics and civil rights, academia, and philanthropy.

She is the Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director with Neysa Page-Lieberman of the new international initiative, Monuments to Movements: In the House of Radical Feminist Practices (M2M) creating monuments to collective action, communal impact, and social change achievements -- monuments without heroes. M2M is a reflective and innovative movement of community process that looks wide-eyed at our past evaluates the systems of the present, embraces the collaborative movements that arrived us “here” and gathers us for the designs of our joint future.

As the Founding President/Artistic Director of Project&, an arts entity focused on cultural production with social impact, she has expanded her life work by collaborating and partnering with artists to create new models of cultural participation & experiences with social impact. Saks has created a broad body of inventive and unconventional models of cultural participation that work to: reinforce agency, creative voice, and common humanity, support risk-taking, and innovative artistic excellence, stimulate dialogue and new ways of expression, invest in and collaborate with bold artists, creators, and partners, and create conditions for uncharted chain reactions exploring essential social and societal experiences and issues. The extraordinary collaborators include emergent as well as award-winning artists—including Lynsey Addario, Lynn Nottage, Claire Chase, Hank Willis Thomas, Marcos Balter, E. Patrick Johnson, Eve L Ewing, Du Yun, Yance Ford, Hon. Albie Sachs, Daniel Alexander Jones, Red Tremmel, Kaneza Schaal, Christopher Myers, and Cheryl Pope, and Jeanne Gang.

As a published poet/writer, Saks collaborates with artists including Kerry James Marshall, Jim Hodges, and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle. Recently, she has written for Phaidon Press on Jim Hodges, and she will publish a series of poems in early 2022 and has publication pieces with NorthWestern Press, and an essay for Haymarket Books. She is a Founding Guild Member of the Guild of Future Architects (GoFA), and has been a visiting critic/artist/professor/lecturer/speaker at Yale University, MIT, Harvard University, Orleans Parish Prison, United Nations, US Holocaust Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Field Museum, The Nobel Center, Aspen Ideas Festival, New York University, University of Chicago, the White House (Obama), U.S. Department of Justice, US Department of State, Public Institutions of the US Criminal Justice System, The New School, Whitney Museum, USArtists, and the Music Academy of California. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Rome University.

From 2004 - 2014, she was the Founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media. Under her leadership, the Institute created an innovative approach to merging arts and cultural production with critical theory, research, activism, advocacy, and education – the first entity of its kind in the nation. The award-winning Fellowship program she conceived and created garnered international acclaim, launching works that went on to win Pulitzer Prizes, MacArthur “Genius” Awards, Obie Awards, and Guggenheim Awards.

She has received awards and honors including Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow; Business and Professionals in the Public Interest “40 Who Have Made a Difference” Award; Arts Leaders Who Work for Equity, Racial Justice and Human Rights (United Nations High Commissioner Award) Inductee, City of Chicago’s LGBT Hall of Fame; Leadership Award, About Face Theatre; Impact Award, Chicago Foundation for Women; Visionary Award: Rape Victim Advocates; BeyondMedia Justice Award; Pride Index Leadership Award In recognition of partnership with and support of the African American LGBT communities; and a Fellow, International Leadership Program, National Arts Strategies. Kerry James Marshall’s city of Chicago 2017 permanent public mural on Chicago’s Cultural Center building depicting 20 Women who have influenced the arts/culture/social equity of the city of Chicago, including Oprah Winfrey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Achy Obejas, Sandra Cisneros, Margaret Burrows, Maggie Daley, Barbara Gaines, and Barbara Jones-Hogu.


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