Sandow Birk

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Sandow Birk (born 1962 in Detroit) is an American illustrator and graphic artist from Southern California, whose work deals mainly with contemporary American culture. Five books have been published on his works and he has made two films. With an emphasis on social issues, his frequent themes have included inner city violence, graffiti, various political issues, travel, prisons, surfing and skateboarding, and most recently a series on "Death in America" and the war in Iraq.


Birk is a graduate of Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design (now Otis College of Art and Design) in Los Angeles.

In 2000, Birk exhibited an epic, pseudo-historical series entitled "In Smog and Thunder”, describing a "Great War of the Californias" in which Los Angeles and San Francisco wage all-out war for control of California, at the Laguna Art Museum. The series included such titles as "The Great Battle of Los Angeles".[1]

His series of idyllic landscape paintings of every one of California's 33 state prisons was exhibited at the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum in 2001. A book has been published on the project, entitled Incarcerated: Visions of California in the 21st Century. In 2002, Birk expanded this project by depicting all of New York State's maximum security prisons in the style of Hudson River School artists from the 19th century. The project was exhibited in New York at Debs and Co. Gallery and works from the series are included in the collection of the New York Historical Society.[citation needed]

In 2005, Birk collaborated with writer Marcus Sanders on a rewriting and illustrating of the entirety of Dante's Divine Comedy,[2] in which Dante and Virgil wander among the souls of the afterworld and discuss faith and philosophy with historical figures. The 13th century poem was translated into contemporary American English by Sanders, while Birk provided illustrations that adapt Gustave Dore's classic illustrations into 21st century imagery.[3] Birk's illustrations were exhibited at the San Jose Museum of Art in 2005 and traveled to several institutions. The work was later published in three volumes.

A feature film adaptation of the Dante project, entitled Dante's Inferno was made by Birk and Sanders in collaboration with Paul Zaloom, Sean Meredith, and Elyse Pignolet.[4] Starring the voices of Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell as Dante and Virgil respectively, the film was featured at film festivals across the United States in 2007, garnering awards for "Best Director" at the Silverlake Film Festival and "Audience Favorite" at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival a.k.a. IndieFest.[citation needed]

In September 2009, Catharine Clark Gallery showed American Qur'an, an exhibition of fifteen sutras of the Qur'an which Birk inscribed in English and decorated with contemporary American scenes.[5]


Birk was a recipient of an NEA International Travel Grant to Mexico City in 1995, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1996, and a Fulbright Fellowship to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for 1997. In 1999 he was awarded a Getty Fellowship for painting, followed by a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship in 2001.

In 2007 Sandow Birk was awarded an Artist in Residence Fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. While there, he researched and worked on an upcoming project of the "Illustrated Constitution of the United States", scheduled for exhibition at PPOW Gallery in New York City in 2008.

Published titles[edit]

Published works including Birk's art:

  • Sandow Birk's "In Smog and Thunder : Historical works from The Great War of the Californias" / curated by Tyler Stallings, (Laguna Beach, Calif.: Laguna Art Museum, c2000). ISBN 0-86719-497-9
  • Incarcerated : visions of California in the 21st century: paintings and prints from the Prisonation series / by Sandow Birk, (Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum ; San Francisco, CA : Last Gasp, c2001). ISBN 0-86719-534-7 (pbk.)
  • Dante’s Paradiso / illustrated by Sandow Birk ; text adapted by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders ; preface by Peter S. Hawkins ; foreword by Mary Campbell ; introduction by Michael F. Meister, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, c2005). ISBN 0-8118-4720-9
  • Dante’s Purgatorio / illustrated by Sandow Birk ; text adapted by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders ; preface by Marcia Tanner ; introduction by Michael F. Meister, (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, c2005). ISBN 0-8118-4719-5 (pbk.)
  • Dante’s Inferno / illustrated by Sandow Birk ; text adapted by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders. Inferno. English, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, c2004). ISBN 0-8118-4213-4 (pbk.)


  1. ^ Duncan Campbell, "A brush with the past: The paintings of Sandow Birk, The Guardian, December 2, 2000.
  2. ^ Robert L. Pincus, "Forging 'links'" SDMA project prompts Sandow Birk to find kindred artistic spirits from years past", San Diego Union-Tribune, May 29, 2005.
  3. ^ Fugelso, Karl (6 June 2013). "'It's more a part of living culture': an interview with Sandow Birk, Dante Illustrator". Medievally Speaking. Retrieved 8 September 2013. 
  4. ^ Pritchard, Paul (June 5, 2014). "Dante's Inferno". Retrieved October 23, 2014. 
  5. ^ DeCarlo, Tessa (November 2009). "Sandow Birk: American Qur'an". The Brooklyn Rail. 

External links[edit]