Photo via Doug Coombe
Ann Arbor street artist David Zinn could draw on a notepad in his living room or on an exposed brick wall in some swanky bohemian loft. Instead, his canvas is public pavement, where he leaves his work for others to discover.
“That way, someone has the experience that some person took the time to do this completely pointless, joyful thing,” he says. Zinn, a faculty brat of The University of Michigan, was raised in the town where he draws his inimitable chalk characters. “Illustration is this very private act of creation, but because I do it on the sidewalk, it becomes communal,’ he says. In the city of Ann Arbor, it’s perfectly legal to draw on a public sidewalk with wash-away chalk. That’s not true everywhere.
Zinn works with children’s sidewalk chalk. He also uses a piece of long, skinny vine or willow charcoal for detail work, combining the charcoal with bright colors to do shadows. Then he incorporates soft pastels to achieve some colors that he can’t get with sidewalk chalk.
Photo via Doug Coombe
His art is anamorphic, which means it looks three-dimensional from one precise viewpoint. Until he starts working, he doesn’t know the place from which the work will look most real. For the work to appear lifelike to people walking past it, he has to draw it from a distance. In other words, he must work from the vantage point of his viewers. Zinn used to paint murals for a living, so he knows how to manage this. He attaches his chalk to a stick. “A long piece of bamboo works well. It’s a traditional tool that scenic artists use to paint huge backdrops in the theater. Bamboo is hollow, so I can just jam the chalk right in there,” he says. “For travel, I use a collapsible blind man’s cane.”
Photos via Zinn Art
When strangers ask why he draws on the sidewalk, he tells them that he just needs to get outside.They probably take that to mean “outdoors,” but there’s a deeper truth. Zinn creates these cheerful images to escape his own anxiety and depression. He needs to get outside of himself. He has a refreshingly Zen attitude about the process of creating his chalk drawings.
“People ask me if I’m going to be heartbroken when it rains,” he laughs. “The fact that it is going to rain is entirely why it is desirable to do. Knowing that it can’t be saved makes it all important to enjoy the act of creating it.” Creating art to hang on a wall in a gallery or in a museum was never really his thing. He doesn’t want to take himself too seriously and cause pressure. “Drawing a character with children’s chalk on the ground where you can’t sell it just frees you from all of that. My drawings aren’t even signed. It is terrible self-promotion.”
He has found a way to market his work, though. He photographs it, making his ephemeral creation permanent. The irony isn’t lost on him. “Sometimes I feel like all my Zen has been shot in the foot by my obsessive compulsive reporting process,” he laughs. He has also found a way to use his degree in creative writing from the Residential College at The University of Michigan. Online, he combines his pictures with text. The text becomes like the middle page of a story. Rather than write the whole story, he trusts that other people’s imaginations will provide the beginning and the end.
Photos via Zinn Art
Zinn says he draws best when he has no agenda. “Just going out with the desire to maybe draw something today and staring at the ground until something presents itself. Usually there’s a spot that is calling out. Admittedly, sometimes it is just a beautiful spot to linger on a nice day. I meet what’s there.” It’s very Harold and the Purple Crayon.
“There’s a kind of energy involved. It feels a bit like acknowledging what wants to be there rather than imposing my will on the ground. Clearly it’s a part of how the art brain works.”
Just as Zinn communes with the pavement, he delights in the interaction between people through art. On one beautiful evening at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, he drew a rainbow-colored alien with a donut-shaped body to amuse some small children. Then he walked away for a while to listen to some festival music. When he returned at dusk, he saw that somebody had filled the donut hole in the alien’s stomach with a pile of Skittles. When rainbow-colored art begets rainbow-colored candy, it’s all good.
Photo via Zinn Art
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