Dessa Kirk Interview

by Vittorio Carli

  The marvelous work of the former Alaska native/current Chicago resident, Dessa Kirk has been featured everywhere from the Art Expo to the Grant Park Conservatory. Her sculptures are often huge and rugged looking, and they range from raw to elegant. She has done countless lilies made from Cadilacs.

Her most recent work can be seen at Congress and Michigan. One of the dominant themes in her pieces is finding the hidden beauty in ugliness. This seems to be in response to her rough early life, and all the horrible things she saw on the street.

I first met Dessa Kirk several years ago at the gone but not forgotten Chela Joe’s Café. She recognized me and introduced herself even though we had never met. It turned out that an artist friend of hers had photographed me, and used my likeness for some of his paintings (I’ve still never seen them). So I looked familiar to her. She thought she knew me, and she introduced herself. I saw her around every now and then but then she moved out of the neighborhood, and I kind of forgot about her.

Years later I saw a terrific piece of her art, “Daphne Garden” on Michigan and Roosevelt. I looked up her work on the Internet, and found she has quite a substantial body of work. One of the Daphne Garden sculptures is also featured on the Chicago Poetry Center brochure (see

I sat down with her at Sip Café one Sunday in December, and and recorded the following interview. I was astonished to find that her stories explaining her art works are almost as fascinating as the work themselves. She also gave me a great beautiful/ugly (I don’t mean this as an insult) metal lily made from a destroyed Cadillac. You can see her work for yourself at her website at

Vito-Can you tell me about how your background or your childhood and how it relates to your art?

Dessa-I was raised in a gold mine in Alaska . My grandfather raised me in the summers and my mother in the winters. I didn't have a father figure growing up. My dad was a drug addict. He's still a drug addict, but he's a fabulous, creative man and also a great gambler. So I was raised by my mom. She was a passionate, creative woman, but not the greatest mom. Now she's a good friend. She went into journalism. Anyway I left home at fourteen. I saw lots of things on the streets that I can make art about now --like prostitution and the psychology of people in the faster life.

Vito-Can you tell me about some specific pieces that were influenced by the things you saw on the street?

Dessa-Ummmm--- There's these women that have been on the street. You see I went to welding school and the Art Institute of Chicago when I was 18, but I didn't go to high school. When I was supposed to be in high school, I saw these women on the street and their men. When I was 20, I thought I could do that with that van, I thought of these women I saw when I was 14, 15, I'd see these sad women ride around in fancy Cadilacs. They were being sold to acquire the Cadillac's--which were seen as beautiful. Then at the end of the day, they would be hidden inside, and there was beauty hidden inside the beauty. So I bought a Cadillac, and I decided to deconstruct it and reconstruct the beauty.

When I got to Chicago , I cut it apart. Everyday I'd come back from school at the Art Institute and take a little more off of it. I didn't really know what I was doing except that I was deconstructing this notion of beauty. Then I started making this lily. In the language of flowers, the lily stands for strength and vigilance. I reconstructed the Cadillac to reveal the woman inside. I made lilies out of different Cadillacs until at one point I used a blowtorch, I'd go to a junk yard on the south side, or call Triple A. For $100 I could buy a Cadillac. Over a two-year period, I would buy them and blow torch them. I torched them in all different colors. I was only interested in using the late ‘70s models because those were the ones I remembered seeing on the street and I saw people covet these Mack Daddy things.

Vito-Did your time in Alaska effect your artwork style or perspective?

Dessa-If you live in the mountains, you have to build everything. You make it. We had the idea that if you think it, you can make it. I think Alaska influenced me because there is a lot of prostitution there. I was it everywhere. It's just vast and big, and that's how I think—vast and big.

Vito-Since we're talking about the subject, so you think prostitution should be legalized and how should it be dealt with?

Dessa-Absolutely. Because it's a black market these women feel like they need to be protected, the same way unions do. When you have illegal prostitution, the culture makes its own laws about it—and there are laws, in the pimping and pandering society. You hear about pandering in rap music, and it's really sad. The capturing and the possession by the pimps is completely psychological. It leads to an incredible sickness, and we're not even talking about the drugs--we're talking about psychology. Some prostitutes may not even abuse drugs. You have call girls, and even they have pimps. If it [prostitution] were legal, they could register and pay taxes. They could be their own women, and we could possibly stop the rapid spread of STDs and AIDS. If it were legal, we could [also] have health restrictions and testing requirements. We could use the money that we get from the taxes. I believe it would be better for the women. It's an awful gesture towards women that it's illegal.

Vito-Well, did you know in some countries like Holland , they do have prostitute unions and mandatory testing? But here it's probably harder to sell because the evangelical conservative voting block is so powerful. How did your formal education help with your art?

Dessa-I never went to high school, so I didn't know how to learn very well. I learned things quickly in a learning-to-survive mode. But I wasn't used to an educational setting, so moving to Chicago was a big challenge. It was a very humbling experience because had a ridiculously huge chip on shoulder. I thought they were privileged, but I learned we're all the same. It's all about today, and what we can learn. It learned all over again that you have to grab the situation and get the most out of it. I had a couple of incredible teachers like Lisa Norton. Gaylen Gerber taught me how to draw and Joanna Anos taught me how to write. We'd write about our personal experiences. On my papers, she'd always write "Is that true?" It helped me internally to lean how to learn and how to get along with people.

Vito-How were you forced to get along with people? Did you do some interactive or collaborative art projects?

Dessa-Well, before I went to the Art Institute of Chicago, I went to the University of Anchorage and to learn about welding, and I took a sculpture class, there. The sculpture class was by an Englishmen named Ken Gray, and he was really hard. He was a brilliant sculptor, and he since passed away. So, I had some ideas about how things would be. I was used to really harsh opinions, but the Art Institute of Chicago was gentler, and the people were coming from a different place. This forced me to become more patient and gentler with other people. I didn't really understand because I had lived a little. I had to accept and honor how other people think and live. So it was four years of humbling.

Vito-You used to live in Pilsen, which houses lots of artists. Were there any advantages or disadvantages in living in an artistic community?

Dessa-Well, I first moved to Pilsen when I got to Chicago in 1992, and it was cheap at the time. The woman that I had apprenticed for in Anchorage , Karen Stahlecker had lived there ten years prior when it was still an artist's community. John Podmajersky Sr. knew how young artists didn't have it together. When I moved into the apartment, he got me a bed, and all this used stuff. He gave me a bicycle and just nurtured me. But I've always lived in artist's communities, so I wouldn't know any different. After I moved out of Pilsen, I moved into a few warehouses. One was on 25 th and Western below a painter named Wesley Kimmler. That was great, but it was a special kind of torture because you had extreme personalities in the building. Betty Sandine owned it. She owned it for 20 years, only rented to artists, and there was 3000 square feet per person. We would always go by each other's studios until five in the morning, and everyone slept all day. It was great.

Vito-Is gentrification a big threat to the artistic communities and is that part of the reason you moved from Pilsen?

Dessa-I moved from Pilsen because when John Podmajersky Jr. took over, it lost its magic for me. It was business, and he want to make money, and I can't blame him. But it's the artist's job to be frontiersmen. It's the artists who move into neighborhoods first and then and then-- then you know what happens.

Vito-How did the poetry center brochure come about?

Dessa-I was in Three Oaks Michigan, watching a theater production. I met a man named Alan Turner and his wife, Lynn. Then I went to a poetry reading. He's on the board and he introduced me to Ken Clark. They have functions in Three Oaks, and Ken liked my work. He had always had dead men's art on the brochures; it was great art, though. He said I think we should have art from a woman who is alive and you are both of those things. He asked to use my work, and I was thrilled.

Vito-Can you tell me about the Nightingale sculpture?

Dessa-That was Navy Pier in 1999. That was an interesting story. I had tried to sneak my stuff on stage in 1997. I was working at the Wishbone as a waitress, when I was at Grand and Wood. I overheard a Roger Machin and a co-worker in Methods and Materials in a conversation. They were installing their work on Navy Pier. They were joking around, and they said wouldn't it be funny if someone tried to guerrilla their work into the show? I said “Roger, that's a great idea!” so I went home and I bought a 400 pound piece of steel for 250 bucks, which was all the money I had. Then I borrowed a mag drill and all these tools; I clear coated my black lily sculpture. The first one I made that was in the VHA show. They told me I had to be there at 5 am in the morning. I was in my little Ford Ranger with a giant sculpture hanging out of the back of it. I looked like a scrap truck. I go t inline with the semis with the really big art on it. I tried to get in the show weeks ago but it had been juried in September and it's May now, so they said no. I saw this guy I had talked to on the phone named Terry Carpowitz. I was in line. He looked at my sculpture, and he started touching it. I was totally caught; so I hopped out of the truck, and I shot my hand out and said, "Hi, this is Dessa Kirk." He shook it and said "Ahh, I remembered talking to you at the phone.” I said "Yeah I've got my sculpture and I brought my hammer and everything." He said "These are really sharp edges," and I replied "Well I've got a hammer and I can pound them over, it's not a problem." Meanwhile, I saw John Henry, Michael Dunbar, and Tom Scarf. These big boys in sculpture were standing there. They were laughing their heads off at me, and Terry was like "You got a lot of moxie, kid." I said "You mean I can't install it today?" I was in tears because I had so much invested in the whole thing, and I thought I could get away with it He said "no" but he let me stay, drive around, and look at the other art. To this day those guys still talk about it whenever they see me. The next year they invited me to the show. That was a great experience. I bought three red Cadillacs and I tore them apart and I made a big red lilly. The next year after that, I wasn't juried in the show but this guy named Enrico invited me. He was curating that year, and that's when I made Nightingale. It's walking forward and looking back, kind of like history.

Vito-Can you tell me about the statues on Michigan and Roosevelt ? Why does that myth in particular still speak to you?

Dessa-There are three figures exemplifying one woman in a moment. The moment that she was turning into a tree. The story goes that Apollo was chasing her. She didn't want to be raped, so she asked her father, the river god for help, and he turned her into a tree. That moment was when she realized that she was going to be free. My work is often about surrendering or giving up something to get. A lot of times I don't have the answer, but I take a leap of faith of what's good for me, and ask whatever's out there in the sky-- the universe to help me. Someone once told me that people that are active and don't parents get adopted by the universe, so I often ask it for help when I'm out of options.

Vito-Do you feel like the universe answers?

Dessa-Always. The key is to ask it for help then go wash my dishes.

Vito-Can you tell me about any of your upcoming projects?

installed December 3 rd . She's striding forward. It's the heart of entering downtown and there's a lot of flowing of traffic, which is like blood, and the water's right behind. So if you look up Congress going east, there's two Indians on each side and, then there's a flagpole in the middle with a triangle. To me it's like the bow of the ship. So I made this woman leaning forward like the bow of the ship leading the way. It speaks a lot about freedom and fearless and free living.

 Vito-What do you think about the elections results and do you think they will have any impact on the arts or arts funding?

Dessa-Everything has an impact on artists. My understanding is that my job as artist is to document history through myself, to document what I see. I don't know that it will be negative. We'll always be here doing our job, and the president did not give my job to me. It's the gift I got from the sky. I get to make art about what I see. The issues now affect my art but I don't think any less art will be made because of the election results. Maybe more will be made.

Vito-Is there anything else that you wanted to say?

Dessa-I'm at the beginning of my career as an artist, and I ‘m grateful for the opportunity to create things. It's a long road, and [there is this] idea that the work I created is my own. I make work but it's not mine. I make it, and but then it goes to the world. It's my job right now to be a sculptor, who knows maybe tomorrow that will change.

Dessa-Right now I am frantically working on a piece for Congress and Michigan . It's another Daphne type figure.

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