“I have usually, at all times, one piece of chalk in my pocket, and one piece of charcoal behind my ear,” David Zinn says. “And that’s all that I need to make a piece of art.”
The Michigan-based street artist spends the summer months crouching over pieces of sidewalk creating elaborate chalk masterpieces. It’s work that is based in schoolhouse simplicity.
“Chalk,” he says, “is the least intimidating art form there is.”
Everyone has scribbled on the sidewalk at some point. It’s the medium of the long, hot summer day. Placing a bit of color on a blank, slab of concrete is a childhood rite of passage. It just so happens to be one that Zinn never quite grew out of.
“Some places just really want to be drawn on,” he says with a laugh.
Zinn sees creatures and patterns everywhere, and it draws him to create whimsical works of art that set out to delight rather than upset or evoke deep, dark emotions. Not that he’s against “heavy” art. But with his own creations, his goals are straightforward: He wants to infuse art into people’s everyday lives. With Zinn’s pieces, passers by don’t need to be in a special art appreciation mode. All they have to do is look down, take in the world around them, and be treated to a little bit of sunshine, right there on the concrete.
Zinn knows, when he sets out to create a piece, that his hours of work will wash away with the first inkling of rain, but he’s okay with that. In fact, he finds that impermanence exciting. Even more so than other mediums of street art expression — because there’s no guarantee that anyone will get a chance to appreciate Zinn’s art before it’s gone. So the people who do stumble upon his work (before it fades or is shuffled upon and ruined) are sharing a little piece of him by pure chance. There’s a thrill to that for Zinn — the excitement of knowing that only a small group of the population will experience something special that he made, and then it will be gone. A happy memory that stands out in the course of a person’s otherwise mundane day.
Still, as joyful as Zinn’s work is, it’s not all sunshine. Fear, he says, has been a constant that’s held him back from creating. Fear that he’s not good enough, that he’s not a real artist, fear of a blank canvas. But he fights through these fears. It’s something he’s passionate about conveying to other people, especially kids. Everyone’s afraid they won’t be good enough but it’s pushing past those fears that make you an artist.
“It’s hard to have faith that the mark you’re about to make, which will permanently de-blank this canvas, is going to be the best mark,” he says.
Over the years, Zinn has learned to trust his approach, and his work is the result. It just makes you smile. His pieces cause you to feel like there’s only a thin barrier that separates our world from magic. If only we could peer through the cracks, we would see dragons soaring through the sky or lovable monsters throwing a birthday party. And in some ways, that’s what his art is reminding us of. Magic. Because while maybe there aren’t actual mythical, magical creatures lurking just beneath the sidewalk, there is a kind of magic and beauty all around us. David Zinn’s art is a reminder to pull ourselves away from our phones and look around more. If we do, we might see the whimsy in everyday life, the people and spaces making the world a more beautiful place, and maybe, if we’re really lucky, every once in awhile we’ll spot a dragon out of the corner of our eyes.
I spoke with David recently, and we chatted about his work, the fun of getting to play with chalk as a job, and how one can get past their own fears to create the lives that they want.