Mapping American Culture

A conversation with MAKER Grant recipient, Samantha Hill
Image Credit: SAIC Spotlights

In 2013, the Chicago Artists Coalition and OtherPeoplesPixels created the MAKER Grant, which provides two unrestricted cash awards given to Chicago-based contemporary visual artists who demonstrate a commitment to a sustainable artistic practice and career development. This year, Samantha Hill is the recipient of the $1,000 award. 

Samantha is a transdisciplinary artist with an emphasis on archives, oral story collecting, social projects, and art facilitation. Samantha creates multimedia installations and performances within historic buildings, landmarks, and public locations. She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from Moore College of Art and Design.

In this interview, Samantha talks about the "Kinship Project," how she began collecting photographs dating back to the 19th century, and what it's really like to be an artist in Chicago. 

What projects are you working on now, and how will the MAKER Grant help you achieve or realize those projects?

The main project I’m working on right now is called the “Kinship Project,” which is an archive of mostly African American history. Basically they’re family photographs, ephemera like maps, letters. There are some objects in it like antique cameras, photo book projectors, books, and journals. The earliest piece is from 1839, and the last piece is from 2010. The earliest piece, I believe, is a teacher’s journal, and the last submission is a family photograph, actually, from my family.

How did you go about finding all these antique objects and photographs?

I was interested in doing a project about African American army nurses from WWII and I bought five photographs from a vintage online seller, and that cost me $94. They also had a small mystery lot in a box for $7. When I opened up that lot, I found some of those amazing pictures from 1940 to 1975. The best one is an African America man with this huge Afro. The picture is colorized, so he’s wearing red velour suit, and he has this Scorpio gold chain on. His eyes were colorized, and they’re hazel, so they look kind of gold. It’s the most awesome thing ever. That’s when I started collecting African American family photographs for fun. So what started out with being a collection of 200, within one year turned into a collection of 3,000. While I was doing that, I started to find tintypes. I started slowly collecting those but they were more expensive, so I had a bright idea a little while ago of making my own tintypes, and I bought an antique camera, and I’ve been making tintypes for two years now.

What are tintypes?

A tintype is a photograph on tin, and it’s painted with black tar and coated with photo emulsion, and it’s put into a folding plate camera and exposed to light. So it’s a one-off kind of picture. They were usually around this size:

   A tintype made by Samantha Hill.

Around the turn of the century, you would go to street fairs, and there were some photographers that had studios and anyone could get their photograph taken, whereas before you had to be wealthy in order to get your photograph taken because it was printed on pure silver. So this is the beginning of our photo culture . . .  I have photographs of African Americans wearing really fine Edwardian and Victorian clothing. Then I have some that are kind of like--the clothes are shabbier--but there’s still dignity. I have to think about that juxtaposition in comparison with today’s photo culture with people taking selfies with cell phones. It doesn’t have the same dignity. I wanted to take peoples’ picture in contemporary dress with this old antique camera, and then I’m also manipulating old vintage photographs to create the ghost [in the tin type].

"I want to map America's culture."

I didn’t purchase the one [photograph] from 1839; that was actually donated to me by a Hyde Park family. Within the past year, people have found out about my “Kinship Project” through word of mouth and they say, “I have all these photographs of people, and I have no idea who they are. Instead of throwing them out, we’ll just give them to you.” I’m starting to turn into a gatekeeper of sorts.  So for me, every project that I do that has to do with any kind of ephemera collection, a story collection, I title that as “Kinship Project,” which can take many forms. It can be art facilitation, a dance event based in history, or an actual installation in a gallery; it can be almost anything. It doesn’t have to be about African American culture; that’s the beauty of it. With the title “Kinship,” anybody could be kin. If I’m collaborating with someone on a project, and it has anything to do with some kind of sharing or giving, then to me, that’s a “Kinship Project.” Giving and sharing in the art form.

Do you have any favorite photographs or objects that you’ve collected?

My favorite object is a book projector from 1942 that was made for injured WWII soldiers by the Argus Camera Company who wanted to contribute to the war effort.  They made about 2,000 book projectors, and they made books onto microfilm. So, you’d feed it into the book projector . . . and then you’d push a button, and it’d turn the pages, and you could read. I have that book projector with thirty books, primarily children’s books from 1942 like Peter Rabbit, The Best in Baseball, political cartoons and satire. Actually, I just remembered my favorite object is the baby shoe – the 100-year-old baby shoe. It’s a little baby bootie from the turn of the century made from leather, and it has little buttons that go up the side. It’s all hand sewn, and it’s from the 1860s, 1870s . . . Someone learned to walk in that shoe.

I’m really partial to the tintypes. I have all these photographs, and there are so many of them that are faded out that I have to scan them through Photoshop just to see what they are, and some of them aren’t that old. Some of them are from the 1950s, but they were put in a frame and bleached by the sun. With the tintypes, they’re durable. Some of them are over 100 years old, and they look the same from when they were printed. I became fascinated with that and the whole idea of sustainability. Sometimes I have opportunities to travel and collect stories from people . . . and to document them in a tintype, in their own surroundings, is a marker. Even if they have to move someplace else, this is a record, and it’ll last for over 100 years.

"Gentleman with bow tie and fedora" from "Kinship" Archive

I have a love letter from a man who’s an African American marine getting ready to go off into the Vietnam War and he’s writing to his wife trying to find a way to sneak away and see her before he gets shipped out. I also have a selection of letters of a correspondence between a mother and her son’s girlfriend about how he is a bad boy and always getting in trouble, so the girlfriend was writing the mother to say, “Hey, this is what’s happening. Can we have a little bit more money so I can bail him out?” I also have letters of condolences. I’m fascinated by how people corresponded by letter culture.

Will you be using the MAKER Grant to help with the “Kinship Project?”

I’m in the Front and Center exhibition at the Hyde Part Arts Center, and I’m still working out all of the details, but my goal is to make a museum. The interesting thing I found out about the Hyde Park family is that they were lawyers, doctors, and educators. One image in particular, when I put it through the scanner and photo corrected it, it was a school portrait of elementary school children from 1905 or 1907 in Birmingham Alabama. The teacher is actually one of the descendants from the Hyde Park family. I’m also a teaching artist and I like this idea of creating workshops in a gallery space, or not necessarily a workshop, but this performative gesture of opening up the archive and making a one-room school house.

The MAKER Grant is going to help me push the “Kinship Project” to the next level, because I want to create displays that echo Edwardian and Victorian museum culture, which is like stacks of objects put out for the viewers to interact with and see. I have to begin purchasing items that will help me do that. Making tintypes is also really expensive, so the MAKER Grant will definitely help me make these tintypes for this exhibition.

What is it like to be an artist in Chicago?

The interesting thing about Chicago is that there is this public art site-specific culture. When I got out of grad school, and even when I was in grad school, I wasn’t showing in the gallery space, I was showing in unusual spaces like basements in art centers . . . So for me, there’s this freedom you have being in Chicago where you can make art anywhere, and it can live anywhere, and people will go out and see it. I’m now just beginning to show in the gallery spaces, but it’s mostly been in Glass Curtain and the Hyde Park Art Center. I’m interested in showing my work in other gallery spaces, but I don’t want to give up my practice of site-specific work. I feel like if I create an installation in an interesting place or location, and there’s a touch of spectacle attached to it, then more people will go and see it than just the art audience. I’m trying to reach a broader spectrum of people.

Great Migration installation at the Southside Hub of Production

What’s important to me is that this [“Kinship Project”] is not a closed archive. It’s an open archive. If the art world is about contemplation and discussion and this consideration in aesthetics, then why not this? Does everything have to be something that goes on the wall or in a collection? Why can’t the emotion or the memory you carry with you be an art experience? That’s what being a Chicago artist means to me.

What’s the most challenging aspect of being an artist in Chicago?

"I want to tell the untold story. I want to go into a city and find what makes that city unique."

Money. Especially for me, my processes are expensive, so I really have to consider that. Also, finding places to show, I have to consider that, especially in the public arenas. Sometimes I have to go through red tape or jump through hoops. Not only am I an artist, I’m an art administrator and my own PR generator. It’s a lot of work; I’m wearing multiple hats. Because of this, I have to live my art practice. I bring my art practice into the classroom when I teach; I bring it into the studio; I bring it into the street. If I’m having a conversation with somebody, and they mention something that I find interesting then I automatically start Googling it onto my phone to make a note, so I’m constantly making.

So yeah, it’s basically funding the project, which is why the MAKER Grant is so important. My idea is not the traditional art realm idea, but in Chicago, I think there’s so much academia involved in the art world that they’re open to new ideas. Even when you think about the artists who are working here, who are also having the same kinds of ideas like, “Well, how are we going to fund this? Who can donate things? Who can I barter with?” That culture is significant here where that would be a little harder in New York. You can do it in New York, but the community is a tiny bit smaller that’s doing this type of work.

If I have funding for my projects, then I’ll be okay.

Including the MAKER Grant, I know that you’ve received quite a bit of other grants and fellowships; how have these helped you as an artist?

I started winning [grants] early in my career and basically, each one gave me an opportunity to grow as an artist. So with the fellowships, they allowed me periods to interact with other artists . . . I’ve won fellowships to go over to Europe and experience art in a whole different realm than what I was used to. I’ve won scholarships to go to school. Each one gives me an opportunity to grow as a person and artist, and that’s also what the MAKER Grant is doing. The “Kinship Project” is pretty new in the broad spectrum of things – I’ve only been working on it since 2012 and I feel like I’ll be working on this project for another 20 years. I’m trying to create something that’s more than just an art archive, but also could become an institution or a teaching tool. To have this bit of seed money shows people that the city is willing to take a chance on me.

Do you have any advice artists that would like to apply for these grants and fellowships but don’t know where to start?

"Know what you want to do. Take a risk."

Know what you want to do. Take a risk. I feel like grantmakers are looking for projects that push the art genre, but have realistic goals. Don’t say that you want to do a million things unless you’re actually doing a million things. For my grant, I said that I wanted to collect stories all over the country, but then I showed evidence that I’m already doing that and just need help to continue doing that. Therefore, the jurors were probably like, “Okay, this is a realistic opportunity to give her some funding.” I think sometimes people believe that it’s the safe projects that get the funding, but not here, not in Chicago. For me, here in Chicago, coming out of SAIC, under the tutelage of my professors and mentors, who are basically supporting me and telling me, “Go out into the world, do whatever it is you’re doing . . . don’t think about what it’s called or the name. Just do it.” That was the best advice anyone had given me. If you have an idea of what you want to do, then just start doing it, now the best you can, and then pop some of your own money into it and get documentation. Then when you apply for funding, be like, “Hey, I’m doing it. Help me do more.”

You refer to yourself as artist as archivist. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

That’s always evolving. I’m an artist as archivist, as socio-cultural anthropologist. Basically, those titles are performances for me. When I first start making an art project, my process is a lot like an anthropologist. I go, I interview people, I research, and I collect a lot of data. Instead of writing a book, I’m making a piece. Sometimes when I say I’m an archivist, I’m using all of this material that I’ve collected, and people can wrap their mind around that. As a transdisciplinary artist, it’s important for me to bridge these practices. Also, in a gallery space, I like to put myself in that space for people to interact with me and for me to interact with them because I learn what they like and don’t like. I think it’s important as an artist to really pay attention to your audience.

Where do you find inspiration when you’re working on the “Kinship Project” or any other project? Where do you go when you’re stuck?

The Internet. I start to research, I’ll go into the archives, I’ll have conversations with people and then I’ll start researching something. Sometimes I’ll have a concept in my mind, and then I’ll go to a thesaurus and look up every single word attached to that. Language is really important as a source of inspiration to me, and sometimes it’s a place to start. That’s how the “Kinship Project” got its name. I was thinking family, but I didn’t want to use family because that sounds so Ronald Regan, so I went to the thesaurus and found kinship. I never used language that much before, it was all oral narratives, but I’m beginning to bring language into it now. I find that fascinating as a way of collecting culture. If I put something old in front of a group of people, and have them comment on it, then I can kind of map out current contemporary culture from a broad spectrum of people.

Taken from Samantha Hill's website.

Sometimes I find inspiration going to shows, but it’s history that I find fascinating and how people represent themselves because that’s how we’re going to learn about ourselves and where we’re going. Sometimes I’ll go through Facebook and Instagram to see what people are posting. I’ve very interested in collective memory, and the best way to find that is through the Internet.

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to tell me?

Right now, the archive is a journey, and my goal is to travel to as many places as possible, collect as much ephemera as possible in order to make installations. I want to map America’s culture, which is what the “Kinship Project” is, me mapping American culture one city and community at a time. I want to tell the untold story. I want to go into a city and find what makes that city unique and share that with the city and the country.

You can sign this off as, “Your friend in art, Samantha Hill.”



Samantha is always looking for more artifacts, photographs, and ephemera to grow the "Kinship Project." If anyone has any object they would like to donate or is interested in learning more, Samantha can be contacted via her website

Samantha Hill is a transdisciplinary artist from Chicago, IL with an emphasis on archives, oral story collecting, social projects, and art facilitations.  Hill creates multimedia installations and performances within historic buildings, landmarks and public locations.  She received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her BFA from Moore College of Art and Design.

Hill participated in residences, exhibitions and public projects for several venues including the Hyde Park Art Center, McColl Center for Visual Art and Innovation, Museum of Contemporary Photography: Cornerstone Gallery, Glass Curtain Gallery at Columbia College and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics & Culture at the University of Chicago. Her work is documented in several publications including the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquire, Time Out Chicago, and WBEZ 90.1 Chicago Public Radio.  Hill’s work is also featured in the book Problematizing Public Pedagogy, published by Routledge Press.

She received several honors including International Sculpture Center Award in 2006 and 2008, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Trustee Merit Scholarship in Sculpture, and Philadelphia Sculptors Award.  Hill received a nomination for a 3Arts Award: Teaching Artist category in 2014.

Published by Jennifer DePoorter on Mon, 07/06/2015 - 10:03am
Updated on Tue, 07/07/2015 - 11:35am