Chalk is often regarded as a tool for blackboards or a means for children to draw on the streets. Yet artist David Zinn has proven that chalk can also be used as an effective “high art” medium. Using only chalk, David has managed to create street art that serves as public exhibitions, delighting people of all ages.
David’s subjects are often cartoonish and whimsical–cute green aliens and winged pigs are just a few examples of the characters that appear in his work. Moreover, David renders his creations with a three dimensional effect, making it seem like little aliens are actually sweeping leaves under the sidewalk or riding on the backs of sea turtles.
David Zinn has been creating original artwork for small shops to major municipalities since 1987. His professional commissions have included theatrical posters, business logos, educational cartoons, landfill murals, environmental superheroes, corporate allegories and hand-painted dump trucks. His less practical creations have involved drawing on bar coasters, restaurant placemats, cake icing, and snow. According to his official website:
David’s temporary street art is composed entirely of chalk, charcoal and found objects, and is always improvised on location. Most of these drawings have appeared on sidewalks in Ann Arbor and elsewhere in Michigan, but some have surfaced as far away as subway platforms in Manhattan and construction debris in the Sonoran Desert. Zinn’s chalk work began in 2001 as an excuse to linger outdoors, but has since achieved global notoriety through the sharing of photos on Facebook, Huffington Post UK, The Cheezburger Network, Street Art Utopia, and Archie McPhee’s Endless Geyser of Awesome. His most frequent characters are Sluggo, a bright green monster with stalk eyes and irreverent habits, and Philomena, a phlegmatic flying pig. As of 2013, there have been a lot of mice as well.
A self-taught artist, David holds a degree in Creative Writing and English Language from the Residential College of the University of Michigan. He has taught creative writing and scenic painting, performed in and directed several Gilbert & Sullivan operas, recorded audiobooks, and hosted two children’s radio shows (“The Rug Rat Revue” on WCBN-FM and “The Mud Pie Café” on Michigan Radio). David is also an avid whistler and a self-described mediocre ukulele player. Recently, he spoke with the Examiner about his experiences working as an artist:
Meagan Meehan (.M.M.): How and when did you decide to become an artist and why did you gravitate towards chalk?
David Zinn (D.Z.): When I was a shy and easily embarrassed kid, I used drawing as an excuse to avoid eye contact and conversation – which is ironic, since that’s now the primary reason I talk to people. I gravitated towards drawing with chalk on the sidewalk because it’s temporary and childish. The biggest doubts that kept me from trying to make serious art had always been, “What am I going to do with this when it’s finished?” and “Is this important enough to be worth the trouble?” Sidewalk art is happily exempt from both of those concerns. You draw, you enjoy the act of drawing, and then you walk away. Tomorrow, if the weather is fine, you draw some more.
M.M.: Growing up, which artists/types of art interested you?
D.Z.: One of my earliest memories is of seeing “The Mad Painter” on Sesame Street, a tall bearded guy who crept around painting numbers and letters on random objects and usually getting in trouble for it. There were two things about it that fascinated me: the realization that recognizable symbols can be brought into being through a few well-placed brush strokes, and the exhilarating idea that we’re allowed to make our own marks on the world instead of just walking through.
M.M.: How would you describe your work and what inspires it?
D.Z.: I play connect-the-dots with the specks and smears on the pavement, and then try to convince the world that I had a plan all along. It’s going pretty well so far.
M.M.: How did you go about getting into galleries and/or featured in public venues?
D.Z.: My work has almost never been seen inside a gallery, and I think I prefer it that way. Too much of the art we see exists only in galleries in the same way that too many of the animals we see live only in zoos. Being featured in public venues is less problematic; you find a public venue and you draw in it. If you use chalk, then it’s less likely that people will get upset . . . but you should still ask permission if you can find the person with the power to say yes.
M.M.: Do you have a favorite piece? If so, which one and why?
D.Z.: My favorite piece so far was drawn on a secluded and crumbling wall downslope from a tree near my house. I used the cracks as the starting points of an illusionary hole with tree roots showing through and two rabbits standing at the edge, looking out. This drawing is my favorite because 1) it was a really believable hole, 2) it was in a spot so isolated that few if any people saw it before it washed away, and 3) I have no idea why the rabbits were there. I feel like the whole thing happened as an exclusive message to myself that I don’t understand yet.
M.M.: Are there any mediums that you haven’t worked with yet but hope to soon?
D.Z.: I have only recently tried to create street art that doesn’t wash away, and only because I was invited to take part in the No Limit Festival in Borås, the rainiest town in Sweden. So working with acrylics is my newest and most exciting medium. I’m adjusting slowly to the complications of drying time, brush-washing etc., but it’s a novel joy to place my friends on the street and still find them sitting there later.
M.M.: To date, what has been the most rewarding experience involving your artwork and/or being an artist?
D.Z.: Drawing alongside kids is easily the best experience of all, because the younger ones haven’t decided to doubt themselves as artists yet, and the older ones sometimes change their mind if you give them a chance. We could all use a reminder of what that kind of freedom feels like.
M.M.: What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become an artist?
D.Z.: Spend half your time creating what makes you happiest and the other half doing what intimidates you the most. Coasting and climbing are both needed for a good journey.
M.M.: Are there any upcoming projects and/or events that you would like to mention?
D.Z.: Yes! I have just published a book of my chalk art photos called “Temporary Preserves.” It and my 2016 calendar of chalk art can currently be purchased at my online store.
* * * * *
To learn more about David Zinn, visit his official website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. To check out his Indiegogo-funded book project, visit his online store.