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The Untitled Gary Hilborn Project - A Blog

Child's Play

Child's Play | A photo by Gary Hilborn | Copyright 2019 - All Rights Reserved


I spent most of December back in Louisiana. Dad was tackling some health concerns, and all my acting commitments had wound down just after Thanksgiving. It was the perfect moment to head south and spend some long-overdue time with my family. For me, being home has a way of kicking up some nostalgia that's hard to brush off. It sticks to me, and I can't help but get a little sentimental about what was.

I sat on the floor of my mom's living room and sifted through old photos of family vacations and birthday parties in my childhood home. Through the magic of Kodak, I re-visited old relatives, camping trips, and uncomfortable Halloween costumes. I saw my first car again and Tigger - our dearly departed cat. My high school graduation popped up, as did Christmases from long, long ago.

On December 24th, Dad and I took a spin around Camp Beauregard - the military base where my brother and I spent a magical adolescence. Everything a kid could want was at our disposal - woods for camping, a pool for swimming, and a close-knit group of friends with whom we'd spend hours just playing. It was a spectacular trip down memory lane. And on my way back, I picked up a few souvenirs - not tangible knickknacks, but mental mementos of the little boy I was all those years ago.

I was a dreamer who learned the power of storytelling at an early age. At six years old, I would endlessly recreate the scene from Superman II where Kal-El regains his powers by finding that one green crystal in the decimated Fortress of Solitude. Not only did the original Superman movies make me believe a man could fly, but they also taught me that actors could stir emotions deeply in their audiences by living truthfully in the moments of even the most fantastical of tales. The look on Chris Reeve's face the first time Clark got a bloody nose from a fistfight can still bring me to tears.

When I was around fourteen years old, my mom would drop me off at The Dollar Cinema - the last big-screen stop for movies in our hometown after their initial run in the fancier, full-price houses. For three bucks, I could pack a triple feature into my Saturday afternoon. Oh, that was heaven. And the box office workers didn't much care about enforcing age restrictions, so I was able to see anything I chose so long as I had the price of admission.

While sitting in that run-down movie house before I was old enough to be distracted by a driver's license and summer jobs and the college prep of high school, I developed my taste for film and my passion for one day settling into New York City. (Thank you, Working Girl. Thank you, When Harry Met Sally.) The Dollar Cinema has long-since closed its doors, but my brother recently sent to me an old picture of its facade. (Whether or not he cares to admit it, my brother can be sentimental, too.) That photo immediately brought back the feel of sticky floors under my tennis shoes and the taste of Milk Duds and Sprite.

I flew back to New York the day after Christmas, and on the first day of January, the love of my life had to work. I was home alone to start the year with some time on my hands. After beginning the preparations for our traditional New Year's Day meal of black-eyed peas, Brussel sprouts (with bacon), and a pot roast buried in potatoes and carrots, I mulled over my resolutions and goals. Scrolling through social media and online news aggregators led me down a rabbit hole of think pieces on "How to Make This Year Count" and ways to "Finally Be Better in 2019." It was dizzying and overwhelming, and I began to get bogged down in SMART goals and timelines and bullet-pointed lists.

Just when I was about to chuck the whole notion of resolutions entirely, I happened upon a piece in The New York Times where one Dr. Kelly McGonigal spoke my language. She suggested deciding on a theme for your year and to let all other goals flow from there. A theme I could do. Suddenly, things began to come into focus. My trip to Louisiana combined with the sage advice of Dr. McGonigal got the wheels turning on what I wanted my new year to be.

Being back home put me in touch with the kid I was. I'd lost him a little along the way, and I hadn’t been quite sure how to get him back. In August of last year, I cleaved myself from my fancy finance job at the international fashion house. After a year of careful planning and saving and preparation, I reclaimed my time. That day job was perfect for me for six years. It had provided stability when I needed it most. But that desperate period had passed, and the part of me that now needed attention was the creative little boy who had been neglected. I had been an artistic kid. I'd color and paint for hours on end. But Picasso put it best when he said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up."

I am an artist, and it's taken me a bit to get comfortable referring to myself in such terms. I've been okay with the narrower descriptor of "actor" for quite some time. But subconsciously, I suppose, living under the identity of an artist felt a little too scary for me. I'd listened when society told me it just wasn't practical. (Ay, there's the rub.)

Be practical. Have something to fall back on. Those early-life instructions still echo in my mind. The administers of this advice were well-meaning. It was doled out from a place of concern. But somewhere along the way, practicality began to erode my creativity. I’d put a value judgement on how I spent my time. After all, time should be spent as practically as money. Sitting down to sketch and draw just didn't seem thrifty or wise. The investment didn't seemed poised for maximum return.

A few Christmases back, when adult coloring books became all the rage, I was gifted one by my nieces and nephew along with a set of Crayola pencils. It's a beautiful book, Splendid Cities, full of intricate designs and artistically-rendered urban landscapes. That January, I wore the points down on those twelve pencils by filling in a surrealistic San Francisco scene. I lost myself in the flow and "colored my way to calm" - just as the book's subtitle had promised.

Upon rediscovering this joy of coloring, I promptly went out and bought a box of crayons - the big one with the sharpener on the back. I remember always wanting that flip-top box of sixty-four whenever August rolled around and the shopping for the new school year had begun. For one reason or another (usually related to teacher-imposed restrictions), we weren't always allowed to bring that big pack of colors to class. Well, I'm a big kid now, and I can buy whichever crayons I'd like - school supply lists be damned.

In addition to that extravagant box of Crayolas (now with ninety-six colors), I also purchased some old-school children's coloring books featuring superheroes of the DC and Marvel Universes. When it came right down to it, I think I sat and filled the pre-printed drawing of exactly one of those pages before packing the whole kit away onto a shelf in my bedroom. Who had the time? Too much to do.

When Dana and I moved into this apartment last year, those art supplies along with some half-filled sketch books and pads of drawing paper were tucked away at the top of my closet behind stacks of blue jeans and sweaters. Get the apartment organized. Everything in its place. More pressing priorities meant the childhood fancies gathered dust beyond sight. Days became months, and months become years. And I became busy with being busy. There was no time for toys.

So as the cornbread cooled in our kitchen on the first day of this new year, I thought about Dr. McGonigal's advice and decided what I want most for my next twelve months is to lean into my creativity. "Creativity" is my theme. It's time for me to unpack the sketchbooks and pencils. It's time for me to write, to paint, and to draw. It's time for me to take photos and shoot films. It's time for me to make a commitment to myself to nurture my inner artist and lay claim to that name.

I climbed up on a step ladder and dug out that box of art supplies. I poured myself a glass of iced tea and fanned out the materials on our dining table. Flipping through the pages of The Justice League Unlimited Jumbo Coloring and Activity Book, I tried to decide where to start. Ultimately, I settled on a simple and striking image of Superman breaking through his chains. It seemed apt. I chose the perfect shades of blue and red and gold, and I just started coloring.

To nurture the dreamer in me, I'm also getting back to the movies a little more often. As I continue to pursue this acting career of mine, it's important to get back in touch with what set me on the path in the first place - the communal experience of watching a fantasy unfold on a big screen. AMC Cinemas has a sweet membership deal whereby you can see three movies a week for around twenty bucks a month. It doesn't quite match up to the The Dollar Cinema's pricing, but if you max out the benefits it comes pretty damn close. My middle-aged waistline won't abide the Sprite, and my dental work won't hold up to the Milk Duds, but a pack of peanuts and a bottle of water suit me just fine.

I'm working hard to maintain my space to play. As incongruous as that may sound, it takes effort and vigilance to not let that playground fade away. I've finally re-connected with the hopes and dreams of my younger self, and I'm committed to becoming the artist he'd hoped I'd grow up to be.


featured photo credit: "Child's Play" by Gary Hilborn. Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved.

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