The Chalk Guy

How Corbin Hillam won our hearts, one sidewalk at a time

words and photos by Emma Calabrese, editor

Tshhhhht. Tshhhhht. Tshhhhhhhhht.

The sound of chalk on pavement is rhythmic, lulling. Every scratch scatters crumbled pink, blue, and yellow in the wake of arching lines. Gusts of wind and the harsh shadows of the setting sun don’t interrupt the rhythm. Tshhhhht. Tshhhhht.

The lenses of his sunglasses, perched on top of his baseball cap, reflect the glare of the afternoon sun as he kneels over a chalk drawing the size of a block of pavement. Knee pads, dusty with chalk, wrap around his jeans. If not for his white hair and beard and the lines on his face, he could be a student. He certainly spends enough time on campus.

The drawing might be gone tomorrow. It might last a couple days. It will barely outlive the event it is advertising, the CC Pig Roast and Hoe Down scheduled for the following day. The lines will fade under hundreds of feet, greater gusts of wind, flecks of icy spring snow. But Corbin Hillam doesn’t care.

It’s not about the product. It’s about the process. Having worked as a freelance artist for thirty years and counting (he’s written and illustrated three children’s books, among other work), Hillam is no stranger to the loneliness that often accompanies artistic creation. At Colorado College, chalking has shown him a way around this solitude. He has been doing chalk drawings on campus for five years now, and he views this particular brand of artistic expression as the marriage of the creative and the social. Based on the number of times he stops to chat with passing students—about everything from the progress of his collaboration on a graphic novel to the entertainment for this block’s Study Break—over the hour-and-a-half that he allots this chalk drawing, it seems that he has struck the balance he was looking for.

By now, his presence on campus is as permanent as the flagpole on Worner quad, or the sound of bells that echoes from Shove Chapel every fifteen minutes. Some students know him well; others do not know him at all. But we all recognize him. We walk past him all the time. Corbin Hillam has become a part of our day-to-day lives, a permanent fixture that contributes to CC’s identity in the same way that the block plan, slack-lining, flannel, and neon spandex do.

How? Well, it started with chalk.

“I’ve found, over the years, that I have a greater need to connect with people than I do to be alone drawing,” he says. “I love to draw, and I really value the work when I can get it, but I think it’s just much more fun connecting with people.”

Hillam’s integration into the CC community stems in large part from the friendships he has formed while chalking, beginning five years ago when he began attending church services at Shove. (Having grown up in California, Hillam moved to Colorado the day after he turned forty, eighteen years ago.) His church, the International Anglican, needed a place to hold services, and Shove had extra space. Even after the number of people attending services outgrew the amount of space Shove could offer, Hillam stuck around as campus minister at CC on behalf of the International Anglican Church. But he didn’t emerge as the strong campus presence he is today until he and his wife, Jane, started a little group called No Strings Attached. Through them Study Break was born, and Hillam busted out the chalk.

Hillam started No Strings Attached as the college outreach group of his church, hoping to provide a resource for students interested in getting involved in spiritual life on campus. Every block, members of No Strings Attached provide free baked goods and entertainment to all students, regardless of religious affiliation. The group holds Study Break at Worner the last Monday of every block with the intention of providing a respite from end-of-block stress. When the event was still relatively unknown to most CC students, Hillam used chalking to spread the word.

On the last Monday of seventh block, students filled the couches and chairs outside Rastall. Others milled around several tables stacked high with cookies, bagels, muffins, and Chex Mix. Someone worried aloud that there was no coffee (it was 8:00 in the evening on the last Monday of the block, after all), and Hillam turned away from the conversation he was having to point out a veritable tank of coffee on one of the tables. “Oh, good,” the girl said.

The low hum of voices and circulation of people continued when juniors Joey Glick and Sarah Rice and senior Spencer Williams, the entertainment for this block’s Study Break, took the mic. Some listened to Rice croon a love song to the “anthropomorphized English major,” some swapped stories about the traumas of final exams and papers, some studied diligently while snacking on Chex Mix. You would never know that the event was organized by a religious group.

“Most of the churches I’ve been involved with have an agenda, and one of the things that’s been great about the International Anglican Church is that there’s no agenda at all,” says Hillam. “There are a lot of great religious groups on campus already. If you want to belong to a group, our thought was that we would help direct people. It made me feel less competitive than if we were saying, ‘We want to find people who will join us.’ Instead, we’re saying, ‘We want to do something that’s for everybody to come and enjoy.’”

This is the kind of tolerance that first endeared Hillam to many members of the CC campus, and that continues to define his role at CC. Linda Madden, the manager of the Chaplains’ Office and Shove Chapel and a long-time friend of Hillam’s, explained, “He’s gifted in that he wants this to be his Christian ministry, but he’s not going to preach to kids, and that fits in with CC culture so well. He’s open and welcoming to all kinds of expressions of faith.”

As campus minister, Hillam takes an informal approach toward advising students, and chalking in front of Worner has given him a venue where conversations about religion, philosophy, and art occur more naturally than they would in a stuffy office. Chalking has also allowed him to meet students who are not religiously affiliated, leading him to branch out of the spiritual community.

“There’s something about doing art in public that people really connect with,” he says. “I probably meet somebody new every time I’m down here. I’m always surprised by that. At a school the size of CC, I would think that after a few years I’d know everyone, but there’s always somebody new.”

Hillam’s visibility on campus is mixed with a measure of mystery—while most of us see him frequently, many students remain unsure of who he is and why he spends hours every week doing chalk drawings in front of Worner. When senior Rachel San Luis and 2009 CC graduate Danielle Dubler profiled him in a documentary titled Corbin* for their documentary filmmaking class last year, they considered beginning the film with students’ mistaken impressions about his role on campus. “We thought about starting our film with the myth of Corb,” explains San Luis. “People don’t know why he’s here. Is he a visiting artist? A professor? Does he run a student group?”

Confused students found out more soon enough, at a screening of the film at Film Fest eighth block last year. The documentary features Hillam talking about spirituality and art, and how chalking at CC has allowed him to express a passion for both of these things. Students greeted San Luis and Dubler’s film with enthusiasm and pride. San Luis attributes the standing ovation it received at the festival to Hillam’s positive impact on students over the past five years; she is quick to insist that her film’s popularity was, above all, a reflection of Hillam’s warmth. “I’m not trying to brag,” she says. “It was great to see people react that way. This is why I do film.”

As a Christian, San Luis feels Hillam’s impact on campus more strongly than most, and she is grateful for his steady, tolerant attitude. “There are so many negative connotations to being a Christian on this campus,” she says, “and I was so refreshed by his approach [when I met him].” San Luis explains that, through a desire to discuss religion and spirituality without imposing his views on others, Hillam bridges a gap between religious and non-religious students at CC.

Similarly, he is an intermediary between CC and the larger Colorado Springs community. San Luis remembers that Dubler, a non-Christian, was eager to make a film about someone who simultaneously embodies CC values (tolerance, open-mindedness) and the values of the surrounding community (religion, spirituality). “She was almost more excited than I was,” says San Luis. “We have preconceived notions about Colorado Springs and CC, that each of them is in its own bubble. She liked that he crossed over.”

Hillam has noticed the tension between CC students and Colorado Springs residents as well. Before becoming involved in campus life at CC, he was aware of the school’s reputation for hippie liberalism. He says, “There are a lot of misconceptions about students, that they’re radically liberal and straight out of the ’60s—which I think is just sad, because that hasn’t been my experience. I find that the campus is a very spiritual environment. There’s a perception within the community that it’s not, but I think students here have a real openness to things that are broadly spiritual.”

Perhaps it is Hillam’s own interest in the “broadly spiritual” that makes him fit in so well here. He explains that spending time with people whose views differ from his own has challenged his faith and forced him to examine his beliefs. About once a block, he attends the meetings of Shove Council, a campus group that discusses multi-faith and ethical issues that are not specific to one denomination or religion. “He always has interesting things to say at the meetings,” says Madden. “He’s broad-minded and inclusive, and he recognizes complexity in our ethical and moral lives.”

To Hillam, forming friendships with students is as simple as being honest and open to new ideas. “I feel like students are pretty perceptive about when someone has an agenda,” he says. “But I was just down here to do art, and this is a really art-friendly place.”

Well, it’s almost that simple. He acknowledges that the administration has played a pivotal role in his ability to continue interacting with students and, of course, chalking. A friend of Hillam’s wanted to chalk at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, and the administration made him sign a document agreeing that the drawing would be gone within twenty-four hours. Hillam is grateful never to have encountered this rigidity at CC.

Given free rein to chalk, Hillam started coming to CC more and more often, and four years ago he made a New Year’s resolution to chalk every single Wednesday. This resolution turned out to be a pivotal decision that led to friendships with many students, including a collaboration with freshman Elijah Douresseau on a graphic novel. Douresseau will write and Hillam, of course, will illustrate.

As Hillam works on his chalk drawing—a picture of a pig grinning amidst chalky flames—Douresseau approaches Worner, and Hillam stands up, leaving his chalk for a moment to chat about their novel. Douresseau plans to write the novel about his experience growing up in Los Angeles, culminating with his transition to life at CC.

Meanwhile, 2007 graduate and current CC admissions counselor Mike Shum intends to make a documentary about the process of writing and illustrating the graphic novel. When Hillam presents a sketch of Douresseau as a baby, Douresseau laughs. “I think I used to have less hair than that,” he says.

While they are enthusiastic about working on a graphic novel together, they are frustrated by the difficulty of finding a time when the two of them and Shum are all available to meet. Much of this trouble has surfaced recently for Hillam—in the past few weeks, he’s had far less time than usual for chalking.

Hillam has worked on-and-off as a substitute teacher for ten years now, and two weeks ago he began a job teaching art to high school students at the James Irwin Charter School. The job will last the rest of the year, and the long hours—Hillam wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and his workday ends at 4:00 p.m. —have made it difficult to keep up with other obligations. But he still finds time to chalk a couple times a week. While his schedule is exhausting, he doesn’t want to give up an activity that he finds peaceful and fulfilling. Despite being tired, he says that he will go home and think to himself, “It’s great to be chalking.”

In fact, the dress code at his new job has Hillam more concerned than the hours. “The hardest part is wearing a tie,” he laments. “Every day I have to wear a tie. But tomorrow is dress-down Friday, so I’m wearing my dragon shirt.”

Despite the agony brought on by semi-formal dress, Hillam finds teaching to be rewarding. He doesn’t just guide students in their art projects; he participates, creating his own works of art along with them. To him, this adds to the fun of teaching and allows him to socialize with students. But teaching art can be difficult, too—since starting at James Irwin, Hillam has struggled to get students to take pride in their art. “One of the things I’ve struggled with in the past two weeks is how self-deprecating people are about art,” he says. “I think it’s a defense mechanism—if they can be critical before someone else can criticize their work, it diffuses a sense of embarrassment.” To Hillam, the experience of creating art should be just as important as the product, and there is no reason why art should be stressful rather than enjoyable.

Perhaps these students’ lack of confidence is related to what Hillam perceives as a general discomfort with art—specifically public art—in the United States. Hillam had the opportunity to do some street art in Europe on a trip to Italy and Norway to visit his son, who studied abroad in Italy. Hillam notes that Europeans are generally more comfortable responding to public art than Americans are. “People were more sensitive to it, because I think their culture is a little bit more tuned into the public art phenomenon,” he says. “But I think that’s changing here. Street art is becoming more popular.”

Still, when Hillam chalks on campus, he often becomes invisible to students; occasionally, people walk or ride bikes over his artwork as he’s doing it. Hillam, on the other hand, is hyper-attuned to his environment. “I look around a lot and I’m really aware of people when I chalk,” he says. “It’s funny, because there are times when I think people aren’t really aware of me, but I’m certainly very aware of them.”

But maybe this lack of awareness on the part of students is just another sign of his integration into our community. Over the past five years, Hillam has become a permanent fixture, simultaneously essential to our campus and easy to overlook. He’s not quite one of us, but he’s among us so often that we don’t question his presence. Hillam’s prominence on campus is quiet and unobtrusive, as our collective knowledge of his existence grows one chalk drawing at a time.

But there’s one important difference between Hillam and his art. While the advertisement for the Pig Roast and Hoe Down will fade into the sidewalk, Hillam’s steady presence isn’t going anywhere. When a woman stops by to say hello to him, he explains that he is being interviewed for an article.

“You’re so famous, Corb,” the woman teases.

He replies bashfully, “Well, that’s kind of you to say.”

Maybe “famous” isn’t quite the right word, though. Hillam’s pervasive role on campus—his enthusiasm, openness, and integration into the student community—has given him more than fame. Hillam has become CC, a representation of the inquisitive broad-mindedness that, for many of us, defines our identity as a community.

The morning after he illustrates a pig dancing in flames on the sidewalk outside Worner, the color of the chalk already shows less brightly. But in a few days, Hillam will be back again, and there will be new colors on the pavement.

The Chalk Guy

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2 Comments

Filed under Ruckus

2 responses to “The Chalk Guy

  1. Good read about my famous friend Corb! Whether at IAC, on a trip to Rwanda, or at CC end of block No Strings activities always a joy to encounter Corb and Jane. Thanks for the great interview! Thinking of you all from Israel.

  2. marion

    when will you be in new york!!! I want to see your work firsthand!!!

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