Sam Gilliam was born in Tupelo, Mississippi and was the seventh of eight children to Sam and Estery Gilliam. He received his Bachelor and Masters degree of Fine Arts at the University of Louisville. In 1955, Gilliam had his first solo exhibition at the University of Louisville.
He is most widely known for the large color-stained canvases he draped and suspended from the walls and ceilings during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Gilliam is also one of the few successful, self-supporting African American artists who views the teaching of art as a mission. Gilliam still devotes time to conducting workshops, participating in panels, and delivering lectures in this country and abroad.