Silence is the sound of finality. And that was all I heard when I received the news that Hillman Curtis was gone. Hillman was a huge inspiration to me and many of you know him from his films, books, or conference talks. He had a stunning visual sensibility, thoughtful eyes, and a kind and creative heart. I like how one of my good friends put it, “Hillman had a gentle and quiet side to him in which he allowed his work to pass through to become much bigger.”
By any yardstick, Hillman was a big success. Yet, to be successful it typically requires talking loudly or at least talking a lot. Hillman proved that wrong in his own quiet way. He forged a path that many of us in the creative arts community follow today. And this wasn’t a passive act—Hillman was a fighter. In one of his books he wrote about the experience of feeling a bit old and tired and then going to a boxing gym for a lesson. After attempting to box, a trainer came up and said, “I can tell that you’ve boxed before, but you have a couple of fundamentals wrong.”
The trainer continued, “First, you’re crouched over, all covered up. You have to use your God-given gifts. You’re tall. Stand up straight. You’re also facing the bag sideways. Square off on your opponent; otherwise you can’t throw the right.”
Hillman reflected, “That was a pretty standard boxing lesson. But that morning I took more from it. First, I should stop covering up and stop hiding from the world. Second, I should acknowledge my blessings, stand up straight, and face my opponents. This could be anything—a client situation, a creative challenge, or a career shift. And finally, and most important, I should ‘throw the right.’ The right is the knockout punch, but by throwing it you leave yourself vulnerable to getting hit, perhaps even knocked out yourself. But you have to throw it to win—even to compete.”
Throughout his career and life, Hillman wasn’t afraid to “throw the right” and to reinvent himself. And he did so, not with ego-filled abandon, but with inspiring calm. In this way, he charted a unique and inspiring course for others to follow.
With Hillman gone, who now will lead the way?
In the silence of trying to make sense of this loss, I started to dig through my archives. I came across photos from different conferences like Flash on the Beach (above) and Flashforward (below) from a few years back. The photo below was actually a mistake at the time – I’m surprised I didn’t delete it. I only focused on Hillman and not the rest of the crew—Lynda Weinman, Bruce Heavin, and Brendan Dawes. Now in retrospect the mistake seems to be fitting. Hillman brought such clarity and simplicity to his work. He stood apart and in sharp focus. And by his example, he provided inspiration to others with details of how he created his work in books or presentations. Hillman seemed to never have anything to hide.
That was of course until he started to show his acclaimed work. He always preferred to let it speak on its own. That’s why I love this photo of him ducking down and out of the way while his film played above. The work was his voice.
Hillman’s voice wasn’t something that just appeared—he intentionally developed it over time. He enjoyed being with other artists and friends like in the photo below.
Recently, while interviewing Hillman, I asked, “What character qualities should an artist nurture and develop?” He responded, “Curiosity. I think this is key… at least for me. I go into every shoot open eyed, expecting to be challenged, and expecting to be surprised. I fully expect that whatever preconceptions I might have about the shoot will get blown out of the water and something far cooler will replace it.”
Hillman was curious and kind. I think the two went hand in hand. When he travelled, he would often bring his son or family on the trip. Below are a few pictures of Hillman and his son Jasper. You get the idea. He wasn’t just a great musician/designer/filmmaker. He was a great husband, and friend, and Dad.
Later in my interview, I asked, “What’s your advice to the aspiring artist?” He responded, “Well, first maybe lose the ‘aspiring’ part. Be an artist. Period. I also think that this year could hold some real opportunities for the person who has neglected their desire to do art. Some will be confronted with less work and more free time. Embrace it. Embrace your ideas.”
Stand up straight. Throw the right. Be an artist today.
I keep thinking about how I want to do something to keep Hillman’s spirit alive. Perhaps it’s our turn to make that project we’ve been burying inside? If you have any of your own plans, ideas or memories, we would all be grateful to hear your thoughts. And thank you for taking the time to read and to collectively share in this loss.
Finally, I just wanted to say thank you to Lynda and Bruce, as I knew Hillman because of them.