The Whimsical World of David Zinn, 2020

Image from David Zinn.

If you are observant enough, careful enough, curious enough, there is an entire world underfoot waiting to be discovered. It is a world nestled in ours but unlike ours—an illusionistic wonderland etched in chalk by Ann Arbor’s neighborhood “chalk man.” It’s a reality only visible to those who are looking for it amongst the jumble of the mundane. But in this world, if you are lucky enough to stumble across it, one rule remains the same as ours: things will not, cannot, last forever. Artist David Zinn says that’s the point. 

“I’m a compulsive doodler. That’s a given. I’ve been doing it since the same age everyone else has been doing it. I just didn’t stop,” said Zinn. An Ann Arbor native, Zinn has been doodling his chalk drawings on sidewalks all over the city for over ten years. “It was a good way to navigate being really shy as a kid, because people can’t talk to you if they can’t look you in the eye, and they can’t look you in the eye if you’ve got your head buried in a sketchbook, so it was ironically meant to keep me safe from interacting with people. And now that I draw in public, it’s the main reason why I interact with people.” Zinn laughed and added, “I’m using art to create the things that reality failed to provide. I would like to see excited, cheerful, or serene creatures staring up at me from the sidewalk. I’d like to be able to sit on the curb next to my imaginary friends. So, I make that happen.” 

What Zinn makes happen is a phenomenon called “ephemeral augmented anamorphic pareidolia,” a fancy phrase which explains how he makes his 2D drawings appear 3D on pavement. “My saving grace is that I’m good at seeing things that aren’t there,” said Zinn. “Which I can’t necessarily call a skill, but it’s worked up that way, that thanks to pareidolia, a thing that everyone’s brain does when your brain is confronted with random information, static, or just visual noise. It is instinctual for us to see meaning where there is no meaning. It’s why people talk about there being a man in the moon. It’s almost undeniably why we have constellations.”

It’s why, while walking around Ann Arbor, or anywhere, really, Zinn will see a rock that can look like a fish, or grass peeking out of a sidewalk crack that looks like the perfect troll hair. Over his life, Zinn has hidden over 1000 chalk creatures all over the world.

“I mean, to be fair, since my work is all improvised, there are a lot of creatures I’ve drawn that I hesitate to even call characters because I’ve only met them once. And we only had a passing acquaintance. But they’re real to the point where they have a point of view, at least inside my head—even if I don’t know their whole backstory, and certainly the ones that I draw out repeatedly. I don’t know why I see them so often. But they do have distinct sort of the yin and yang personality profiles.”

He’s referring to two of his most recognizable figures, a green character with stalk-eyes named Sluggo and Pigasus (a pig with wings) named Philomena. Images of these two, more than any other character, show up all over Zinn’s social media and website.

“It’s probably not hard to notice that there’s a very different demeanor between the two of them. Which was not planned. I’m only explaining after the fact because I don’t know why I draw them. But perhaps because of his bug-eyed anatomy, Sluggo is always very excited about whatever’s happening, one way or the other. Happy, terrified. He just always has a strong reaction. Maybe because he doesn’t have eyelids. So, it’s his own choice, but I think it goes beyond that. And he’s  very energetic, ready to engage. Ready to react,” said Zinn. “And I learned early on when I once tried to draft Philomena looking frightened that she won’t do it.

That particular drawing only works with an implacable, accepting, neutral expression. It’s just a very steady, ‘Okay. All right.’ And it’s actually strangely reassuring. I think I get more reassurance from Philomena because whatever is going on, she’s just okay with it. I wish I could do that. And I’m hoping to learn to live by that model over time.”

Zinn recounted a time he was traveling for work, feeling homesick and stressed out about events in his life, when his work was a sort of refuge from the day-to-day.

“I have a doodle from a sketchbook I carry around,” said Zinn. “When I just absentmindedly drew Philomena with one hoof raised up a little bit. In a strange way, it seemed very obviously intended as an attempted high-five. I really needed that in that moment. There was no look of great sympathy on the face, just a very unshakable, placid face combined with this little tiny raised hoof sent a very strong message, ‘You know, you’re doing your best.’ I realize that every time I slip past that page as I kept drawing in the same book, I never failed to high-five the Pigasus, because I needed it. I almost always needed that little extra help, that little reassurance.”

He hopes that people find that kind of solace in his work. 

“At the end of the day, you can’t tweak it. You can’t stop and wait and wonder if you did it the best way you could. You have until the sun goes down. Or until the shadows get too long, the sun moves in a bad position, you get too cold or too hot. And since you’re drawing chalk on a sidewalk, that will have no value when you’re done with it, you might as well draw what makes you happy right now. Because that’s the main reason why you’re doing it. And you’re done when you’re done. Eventually, you have to walk away. Since these are my friends, and they do wash away, it is pretty meaningful that this is the only time you get to spend with them. Just once. You can’t pull them out of your drawer later or put them on your wall. You’re done when you’re willing to bond with them enough to let them go.”

Zinn, who draws his creatures with off-brand chalks and vine charcoal, invites everyone to pick up chalk because “you don’t feel like you need to take a class for it to be successful at it.” And there’s no pressure to be good at it, because it will wash away at the end of the day. 

“Everything is falling apart,” said Zinn. “The Mona Lisa is falling to dust right now. Just more slowly, and with more people fighting it. There’s a lot of calm and acceptance in just letting go. In that sense it’s very therapeutic to draw outside with chalk. You’re reminding yourself that holding on to things is where a lot of the anxiety comes from. Enjoying them while they’re here and then letting go is much better.” 

Zinn continued, “If everything I had drawn in Ann Arbor is still there, you wouldn’t be able to walk two feet without stumbling over something I’ve drawn. I love that people wish they’d never wash away, but believe me, you’re happy they’re gone. It’s a small town! You could drop me anywhere in town and somewhere in my line of sight is a place where I drew something, no matter where. If I think about it, there are some strange places that I’ve drawn that people probably haven’t even discovered yet. Because part of the satisfaction, I’m realizing now, [is] that this is my job.”

Zinn’s job has taken him all over the world to a variety of places both simple and baroque.  

“Usually upon very careful inspection, even a very respectable plaza has some curious little broken spots that are going ignored. The main separation is usually trying to distance myself from people to really talk to that spot, to figure out what it wants. The theoretical belief is that every spot on the planet has something it would like to be if given the opportunity. You just have to listen to it carefully,” said Zinn.

“But the greatest satisfaction is found in randomly stumbling upon a sort of ignored and forgotten spot. It’s nowhere special, I just happened past because I was walking a different way to the post office, and maybe other people walk that way to the post office, and maybe they don’t. But I can put something in a very random, ignored corner, where chances are maybe one person will see it before it gets washed away by the rain. 

“If you’re trying to share your art with the world, this is a terrible plan. But if you’re trying to make an impact, even on one person, wholly molly… I mean, if you’re that one person who happens to be in the right place at the right time and look down at this one spot, and see this completely insane drawing, insane in the way that no one in their right mind would take the time to draw this one weird thing in this one weird, sad, spot, you’re going to wonder what’s going on in your day now. And maybe even, just for a moment, wonder if it was put there for you, because in a way it was. If you were the only person who saw it, I didn’t know it was you who would see it, but it was put there for you. You’re 100 percent of the audience.”