The Rapidian

The Artists of Heartside Gallery and Studio-- Kathy Sam

One of our founding studio members is back in Heartside, and she tells us a little about her journey along the way.
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Kathy Sam back in the studio!

Kathy Sam back in the studio! /Heartside Gallery and Studio

Our featured artist for January is Kathy Sam

Here's a little bit about Kathy, in her own words:

"My name is Kathy Sam, and I was born in Manistee in 1954 as a full blood Native American from the Ottawa Tribe. From 5-17 years old I grew up in foster care up north. I loved making Native pictures, and when I was 7 years old I took an art class in East Jordan, where they had them in the summer for kids. I won an art show for my painting and they paid for my art class; I just had to pay for supplies.

In 1971 I turned 17 and after a lot of years in foster care, I got adopted into a family in Grand Rapids. The family had a daughter who had recently passed away and her name was Kathy, and they said they couldn’t call me that, too, because it brought back too many memories. Well they changed my name to Linda Bessey, and I had that name for a long time. Ten years later I went back up north to visit my biological father. It was strange and we just stared at each other for a while. That was the last time I saw him, but I did learn that I had brothers and sisters all over Michigan. I still keep in touch with a few of them to this day.

When I came back down to Grand Rapids, I was homeless for a while until George Heartwell and the counselors at Heartside got a hold of me. They helped me get an apartment on Cherry Street, and I got jobs working at a Laundromat, and as a grave digger. I only got paid $2 an hour, but it helped to keep me alive back then. Some years later I started drawing at Heartside, and back then the studio was pretty crummy. We only had half of the studio in the basement! At that time the upstairs of Heartside Ministry was 1/3 In the Image free clothing, 1/3 Heartside Clinic, and 1/3 chapel and counseling. I had some alcohol issues, but when I didn’t drink and do drugs, I made art. After a while I got signed up for SSI for mental issues, and I’ve been on it ever since. At times back then I would try and do myself in and o.d., but I don’t do that any more.

Around 2000 I went back up north and got an apartment on the reservation there. I wanted to be close with my tribe family and be away from the chaos here. I came back to Grand Rapids for a few weeks every year to visit and see my family and friends here. While I was up north my family told me they didn’t like the name Linda because it sounded like a white man’s name, and they told me I should change it back to my given name. My cousin is a judge up there, so he changed it for me, and I became Kathy Sam again. 

In October 2011 I left my apartment on the Res to live back in Grand Rapids because it was too quiet and lonely up north, and I had a hard time making art there. I am working on getting myself an apartment here now so I can continue to do my artwork and be close to the people I love here. It has taken a lot of agency people to help me find a place because it’s not that easy to find a place when you are homeless. First you gotta have money to get the place, you got to have consistent income, and it’s hard to find affordable places around town that aren’t slummy. There is a waiting list for the good places downtown that do deal with low income people like me, but there is lots of paperwork, forms and deadlines that are hard to do on your own, especially when you are already stressed. You gotta have good support, and a strong mind and try not to get too stressed out and give up.

For now I feel like I am getting too old to go to college; I just want to make art, have a place to stay and live a happy and normal life. Those are my goals."

The Artists of Heartside Gallery and Studio is a monthly feature to highlight some of the wonderful people of the Heartside neighborhood. Visit www.heartside.org and Facebook to keep up with us, to learn about volunteering and other ways to get involved.

Sarah Scott is Arts Coordinator for Heartside Gallery and Studo at Heartside Ministry, and can be reached at [email protected]

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