The Interview : David Zinn
(Rachna Singh in conversation with David Zinn, Street Artist & Illustrator)
The Wise Owl talks to David Zinn, a world-renowned street artist who specializes in chalk art and is most known for his trademark chalk creatures. An Ann Arbor native, University of Michigan alum and a professional illustrator, David Zinn has been creating original artwork in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan since 1987. Most of his creatures appear on sidewalks in Michigan, but they also surface as far away as subway platforms in Manhattan, village squares in Sweden and street corners in Taiwan. David’s street drawings are composed entirely of chalk, charcoal and found objects, and are always improvised on location through a process known as ‘pareidolic anamorphosis’ or ‘anamorphic pareidolia.’
David’s artwork can be found on his website, Facebook page and Instagram account. David’s work has been featured in Huffington Post, Graffiti Art Magazine, Bored Panda Central China Television, BBC, Street Art Utopia and Archie McPhee’s Endless Geyser of Awesome. His Ted Talk has been greatly appreciated by audiences all over the world. He has authored three books on street art viz. ‘Underfoot Menagerie’(2018), ‘The Chalk Art Handbook’ (2021), a published collection of techniques for making happier sidewalk art and ‘Chance Encounters’, a collection of brilliant illustrations published in April 2022.
Thanks David, for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl
RS: To break the ice, let me start by asking you a question that you probably have answered many times. Our readers would be eager to know how you became a street artist. Was the earless Mickey the starting point of your creative journey or were there other factors that made you embrace street art?
DZ: The most influential factor that drove me to create art on the street was Michigan weather. We experience a wide variety of weather in my hometown of Ann Arbor, and as a result we often plan activities around the conditions on any particular day: some are ideal for staying inside, and others invite any excuse to linger outdoors.
Though it was not part of my original intention, I may have continued to make art in public spaces because it brought me closer to my community. Before I started drawing on sidewalks, most of my personal and professional time was spent in isolation in my studio but moving my creative work out onto the street gave me the company of strangers for my work.
RS: Your characters, (be it Sluggo, the green monster with stalk eyes or Philomena, the flying pig or Nadine, the cute mouse with leaf ears), seem to be brimming with exuberance and bring a smile to the faces of onlookers. How did you create this aura of what you call ‘cheerful nonsense’? Does it reflect your own attitude to life?
DZ: Half of the time, I go out to draw my characters because I’m having a good day and want to share it with someone. The other half of the time, I’m having a bad day and need someone to cheer me up. Generally speaking, I create on the sidewalk whatever the universe failed to provide.
RS: Our readers would be eager to know about the creative inspiration behind the characters you draw (or should I say chalk)? Are they created from your imagination or are they moulded around characters you read about as a child or are they simply doodles you fleshed out?
DZ: I have almost no ability to accurately recreate things that I have seen, so I rely heavily on improvising all of my characters from my imagination (and objects I find on the street, of course). However, even when we create things entirely from our imagination, we are drawing indirectly on everything stored inside our heads: stories we’ve been told, books we’ve read, even people we met earlier that day. If I ask you to draw a picture of a lamp without looking at one, you might or might not draw a specific lamp that exists in your life, but you will unavoidably use your memory of lamps you have seen to determine what the picture should look like. So yes, my characters are an amalgamation of every book, movie and comic strip I’ve loved since I was a child, but I probably couldn’t tell you which. And to call them doodles I fleshed out is also wonderfully accurate.
RS: You also use objects on location to build your art. I love the one where you have used an upturned planter to great effect and turned it into a lamp with Nadine reading under it. The manhole (or is it a 3D dustbin) with Sluggo, Philomena and Nadine prancing around is another beautiful work. I was just wondering; how do you perceive an extraneous object to be the right one for your art of the day? Has it ever happened that halfway through the artwork, you have abandoned it as it does not match your vision or what you envisaged it to be?
DZ: I have almost never abandoned a drawing halfway through, and when I have, it has usually been because of an unexpected rainstorm or objection from an authority figure. I don’t have to worry about the final drawing matching my vision because I never have a specific vision when I begin; at best, I have a vague idea of something that might want to be drawn but staying open to unexpected developments is the best way to enjoy the process and avoid frustration. There are often tense negotiations along the way, but I have learned that it is much harder to draw something that doesn’t want to be there, so the drawing usually wins.
RS: Chalk art on streets or sidewalks does not have a long life and of course no permanence (although you can of course save it as a digital creation). Clearly that does not bother you. I’m curious to know, as I’m sure the readers would be, is there any particular artwork that was so close to your heart that it saddened you when it was washed away?
DZ: The only destructions that have ever saddened me were the few drawings that were left unfinished, but those have hit me hard. The feeling of loss is very much like having made plans with a friend who never shows up, and it’s compounded by the reasonable anxiety that you might never see them again. Each drawing fits the time and place where it appears, so none of these interactions happen twice.
RS: You have said somewhere that you don’t like to work on a canvas as it gives you too much freedom. Could you enlarge upon this statement for our readers and viewers.
DZ: This is a common problem, sometimes known as the fear of a blank canvas or the paradox of choice. Most of us react to a wide range of options with overthinking and anxiety, struggling to make the best possible choice and avoid regret or embarrassment. Several people have told me that they are completely paralyzed by self-doubt when given the opportunity to draw something on a blank piece of paper, and they believe that this paralysis proves that they are not artists. The truth is that every artist I’ve met over the age of five feels some version of this self-doubt, but they’ve found a way to push through that doubt into action. My own solution is to limit my options by drawing on a cracked, stained sidewalk in the hours before the sun goes down.
RS: In your BBC film, you have said that ‘Science is how we solve problems while Art is how we cope with them.’ Our readers would be curious to know what you mean by that.
DZ: My statement was an oversimplification, but hopefully not completely off the mark. I believe that we interact with our environment in two distinct ways: on the one hand, we gather information as accurately as possible through our rational senses and make logical decisions based on that data, and on the other, we indulge an unquenchable urge to visualize and create new concepts that are not present in that data. Both are responsible for our survival. Fact-based understanding of reality is crucial to problem-solving, but faith and intuition frequently help us surmount grave challenges without insisting that we dissect them first.
RS: You have said in your Ted talk that your art was a crutch to avoid human contact. However, your art has brought you a lot of global fame and there would be a lot of people reaching out to you, wanting to learn the intricacies of your art form. Do you still have reservations about social contact or has your art helped you to overcome your shyness.?
DZ: Art is still a crutch, but it serves to help me navigate rather than avoid human contact. I remember being afraid that I would fail to act “normally” in public – worrying that I was wearing the wrong clothes, saying the wrong words, and even walking the wrong way to fit in and be safely invisible. Drawing in public sends a clear message that I am not trying to fit in, a distinction that is surprisingly comforting and sometimes provides a different kind of invisibility. When people do talk to me on the street, it feels like a moat has been crossed and any concerns about normalcy have been set aside.
RS: Did the covid lockdowns impact your creativity? Did it fetter your work or give it wings?
DZ: As far as the pandemic is concerned, I was lucky in many ways. I spent a lot of 2019 traveling for my work, and I now feel extra grateful to have done that during a simpler time. However, I had sometimes wished that I could spend less time and energy moving from place to place, especially since the streets I drew on while traveling were usually not much different from the ones I had left at home.
The lockdown gave me the opportunity to pursue all of the inspirational opportunities that exist within walking distance of my own house, and I never came close to exhausting them. Early on, I was even able to draw in locations that had previously been too crowded with people, such as the doorways of closed businesses and the ground in front of parking machines. After two years, I now have a far more intimate and ethereal relationship with the cracks and specks in my neighborhood than I ever thought possible.
RS: Your website comes with the tagline ‘underfoot ephemeral impossibilities.’ The ‘underfoot’ and ‘ephemeral’ of course refer to your temporary sidewalk art. But the term ‘Impossibilities’ piques my curiosity. What do you mean by this term in the context of your artwork?
DZ: The “impossibilities” in that context refers to the winged pig that appears next to the tagline. In the United States and some other parts of the world, people use the idiom “when pigs fly” as a discouraging response to improbable goals, and the negativity of that idiom makes the image of a pig in flight an inherently encouraging symbol. Wings on a pig aren’t even difficult to visualize, which suggests to me that some supposedly impossible goals merely require imagination.
RS: I have seen you working on your artwork in the videos posted on Facebook. You use a long stick with a chalk or charcoal at the end of it for drawing the outline of your characters. You have said that it helps you give a 3D effect to your art. How did you think of using this? Is it not cumbersome to use it?
DZ: I worked for several years in a scenery shop painting theatrical backdrops. The largest canvases were spread on the floor and painted with brushes attached to bamboo poles so the painters could stand upright. This is not as difficult as it sounds; in fact, large gestures are easier to execute with your whole body than with just the muscles in your hand.
When I started drawing on the street, I discovered that my painters’ bamboo was the perfect diameter to fit a piece of chalk instead of a brush handle. I eventually replaced the bamboo with a folding cane that is lighter and easier to carry.
Neither has to be a precise drawing tool, because they are only used to establish the accurate shape of the 3D illusion as seen from a standing position; the final stages of every drawing are done by hand after the proportions are correct.
RS: Your street drawings are composed of chalk, charcoal and found objects, and are always improvised on location through a process that you call the ‘pareidolic anamorphosis’ or ‘anamorphic pareidolia.’ Could you please explain this for the benefit of our readers?
DZ: Pareidolia is the common psychological phenomenon of perceiving meaningful images in random visual information, such as animal shapes in clouds or faces in tree bark. Anamorphosis is a trick, artists have been using for hundreds of years, distorting an image so that it will appear “perfect” or three-dimensional from one specific viewpoint. “Pareidolic anamorphosis” (or anamorphic pareidolia) is the process of identifying a potential image in existing natural surroundings and then building upon that image such that the imagined result looks real in a carefully oriented photograph.
RS: Although your artwork is immediately recognizable as your work, you don’t put your signature to your work. Our readers would be curious to know why you don’t sign your work.
DZ: I did sign my earliest street art, but as my personal connection to my creatures increased, writing my name on them started to feel inappropriate; it reduced their reality, both for me and for anyone else who saw them. At some point in each drawing, I stop seeing lines and shapes and start seeing someone I can relate to. (I’ve been caught talking to my drawings more than once.) After that point, an artist’s signature would remove all of that life and turn my friends back into nothing more than chalk marks on the ground.
RS: If I recollect correctly, you have said that art is not something only a few people can do, that it is not meant to sit inside a frame quietly. I agree with you completely of course but purists would probably not see eye to eye with this concept. How would you convince them?
DZ: I respect the multitude of skilled artists who have put time and effort into mastering their chosen media and pursuing an audience inside galleries and museums. My issue is that our colloquial definition of Art includes only the work of those few people, and that limitation serves to discourage anyone else from embracing their creative voice on a more casual level.
Many of us engage in creative expression on a regular basis: telling jokes, singing in the shower, dancing at parties, baking cakes, doodling on note pads – but when someone asks if we make art, we say no. In some respects, this may be for the best, because thinking of those pleasurable diversions as art would probably make them less fun, and the fun may be the most important part. There’s a lot of evidence that even minor creative activities (e.g. doodling) have a positive effect on the general function of the brain, so a world full of doodling doctors, bankers and scientists would probably run better than one where all of those people are afraid to trespass on the territory of “serious artists.”
RS: You have authored three books i.e., ‘Underfoot Menagerie’, The Chalk Art Handbook and ‘Chance Encounters which has been released in April of this year. Our readers would like to know if you are you working on a new book or project now? If so, when do we see it in the bookshops?
DZ: My focus is typically on creating new art wherever I happen to be, but because that habit results in well over 100 new images each year, a new collection is always in the works. At the moment, I’m looking forward to publishing a second volume of “The Untold Tales of Nadine,” a do-it-yourself storybook; during the pandemic, a mouse in a blue dress appeared frequently in my drawings, and the captions that came to mind for these pictures always sounded like story titles (e.g. “Nadine and the Nautical Picnic,” “Nadine and the Hibernal Expedition”). I have no idea what is actually happening in these stories, so I have collected the pictures and titles in a booklet with a blank page following each photograph in hopes that other people will help me tell Nadine’s adventures. Nadine has appeared a lot in the last six months, so a second volume may be necessary.
RS: Some quick questions before I wind up the interview. How did you go about naming your characters-Philomena, Sluggo, Nadine? Do you name all your imaginary friends? Do you name them before or after completion of your work?
DZ: Sluggo is the first creature I ever named, and I only named him because people asked about it so many times that I eventually blurted out a painfully obvious option. Philomena required more thought, because 1) I didn’t have strong feelings about whether the character was male or female, and 2) I sometimes draw several flying pigs in one sitting and didn’t want the responsibility of inventing different names for each and every one. “Philomena” solved both problems because it contains a boy’s name within a girl’s name and the -a ending makes it sound like a taxonomic designation (philomena, philomenae) that can be applied to multiple individuals. In addition, there is a St. Philomena who has been described as the patron saint of impossible causes, and that is a very appropriate namesake for a pigasus.
Nadine was named more recently in what has become the standard process: I improvise a chalk drawing without plan or purpose and later write a one-sentence story that attempts to describe what emerged. When these stories require a name, I try to use the first name that pops into my head because otherwise I risk becoming just as paralyzed by trying to choose the “perfect” name for a character as I would be trying to decide what to paint on a blank canvas. In short, Nadine looked like a Nadine. I only found out later that the etymology of the name means “hope,” which feels appropriate for a character I first met during a global pandemic.
RS: One last question. In today’s world, art has become extremely commercialized. Your art, on the other hand, seems to be completely unaffected by this commercialization. How do you keep your idealism alive in the face of such blatant commercialization?
DZ: I may have stumbled into a useful loophole in the realm of creating art as a profession. With very few exceptions my actual commercialized arts are performance and photography: I sometimes get paid to draw in a specific time and place, and I take and sell photographs of things I’ve drawn. The drawings themselves cannot be preserved, transported or sold, and that “worthlessness” frees them from innumerable responsibilities. I’ve never had to worry whether a piece of chalk art was good enough to be purchased by a collector – I’ve never even had to wonder if I had enough space in my studio to store it when it was finished. Drawing with chalk remains a therapeutic personal activity that may or may not result in financial benefit at some point in the future depending on whether I choose to take a photograph or just walk away. The art itself, like many ephemeral arts, is gleefully futile.
Thank you so much, David, for talking to The Wise Owl. We wish you the best in your artistic pursuits and hope you always keep your ‘inner child’ strong and keep bringing a happy smile to the face of all those who view your artwork.