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Episode 45: Wisdom and whimsy, featuring David Zinn

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Episode 45: Wisdom and whimsy, featuring David Zinn

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. In this episode my guest is David Zinn, a philosopher disguised as a chalk artist festooning the sidewalks of Ann Arbor with whimsical creatures living among the cracks and weeds and pipes and rocks that we otherwise ignore. If you’re lucky, you might see his green friend Sluggo, the one with stalks for eyes, or Nadine, the unflappable mouse who befriends subterranean wombats, and you’ve surely encountered Philomena the flying pig, who, frankly, is scared of nothing.

And I use the term lucky, because David’s art (and that’s art with a small “a” per his OWN descrption) is by its very nature temporary. Though he photographs each piece when it’s complete, he is content to pack his chalk and walk away when he’s done. Let his creatures live their own lives for now. Wind, rain, footfalls – whatever the case — nothing lasts forever.

David’s form of art is akin to pareidolia – it’s that thing when we see a dog in the clouds or the Virgin Mary in our toast. David’s form began as a kid whose parents always kept some paper and pencils close by to keep their children occupied. He and his brother were inveterate doodlers, challenging each other to complete pictures that started with a line or a squiggle. For him, that was more inviting than an empty canvas, and the technique supported a successful commercial career before he transitioned to a career as a full-time creative.

When he’s not crouched on the Ann Arbor sidewalk drawing his creatures into life, he may be traveling the globe or visiting schools, signing his chalk art handbook or giving a TED Talk. Whatever the case, you can be sure he is delivering some pretty profound life lessons borne of a battered box of chalk. For an admittedly shy person, David has more friends than he can count. One of his strongest bonds and most impactful revelations grew from an argument with a funny-looking green dude who had his own vision of reality. Well, here, I’ll let David explain.

DAVID ZINN:
It became clear that I’d been trying to draw something that didn’t want to be there. When I’m what I should have been doing was paying attention to what did want to be there. And what did want to be there was Sluggo, waiting patiently for me to get over myself and put the eyes where they’re supposed to be, instead of where I think they should be. So that’s a pretty strong bond, to have a friendship that starts with a fight like that.

I do think he’s still important to have around as a companion because of something he has, which is a result of something he lacks. He has unbridled enthusiasm at all times, because he lacks eyelids. And it’s very hard to be bored or sleepy, or calm or sad without islands. It’s just it’s a fact of visual art. Very true, but they’re a necessary part of these sadder emotions. And so he’s always very enthusiastic, not always happy but very enthusiastic one way or the other, about everything that’s happening. And that’s a good thing to have around. But I think that’s Nadine, the mouse, and Philomena, the flying pig have very different eyes. They have little spot type eyes, which have the opposite difficulty that is very hard to make them be upset about anything because their eyes are only this big. With eyes that are only that big, You’re always pretty much okay and nothing more than everything that’s happening around you.
And Nadine comes out much the same, except that she feels more like a role model. In that she is unflappable. And yet very often putting yourself in very dangerous situations that I would never attempt myself … I’m amazed that people are fond of this particular drawing because it was drawn on Main Street, out near where peaceable Kingdom used to be, because there’s a lot of residual imagination, that’s just always going to be right there. And there is a large one of those flat, spreading weeds growing through a crack in the sidewalk that looked very much like a terrifying fish. And it’s one of those guilty cases where I drew very little of what’s in the photograph, because the terrifying green fish was already there. I gave it some teeth, which made it more terrifying. And there was a washer nearby that made a very terrifying eye. So it worked together pretty well. And I would have I think while I was drawing that I thought this is going to be a little too scary. I shouldn’t I mean, children follow me on Facebook, I shouldn’t be sharing this terrifying fish. And around the time I was thinking that was when Nadine became part of the picture is sitting in a boat, feeding this fish a piece of cake, which didn’t reduce the terrifying nature of the creature — but it did kind of put it in perspective, where the exact moment I was thinking “Yeesh. What is this?” She was like, “It’s something that needs a piece of cake.”

DH: I have always wanted to catch David drawing on the street and earlier this month, he joined with the Ann Arbor District Library in an event for the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. And there he was, with his open wooden box of multicolored chalk creating art in South Maple Park. It was a windy Sunday afternoon and a blues band was playing Prince covers (very loud, sorry). David was bringing to life a long green lizard using a weed for an unruly mane. A woodland critter in a striped sweater would appear on his back, holding the reins, and waving — at least until the rain comes. Listen in, as David charms a boy who “doesn’t make art” into borrowing some chalk … like I said, for a shy person, he has a lot of friends

Ambient audio with Zinn: “There you go, buddy, that’s what you wanted. There you go Let’s put some light on there, shall we? He’s almost too excited. I’m gonna chill you out.”

DZ:
It does go way back only as a solution to a problem that goes way back: feeling like every piece of art has to spring forth completely from scratch and void. And I was never able to make art under those circumstances. And so I was at risk of never making art.

I’ve decided that the more appropriate term that I should be using for my own work is augmented pareidolia. Because I know we’re first to seeing an image already complete in a random assortment of information. And it suddenly looks like a thing that, you know, it isn’t but it looks like the thing, you know, and augmented pareidolia is more like playing connect the dots, where you really only have to see a glimpse of even just part of what the thing may be could be and it is still the same you know, brain game of seeing something that isn’t really there but then you have the freedom to add to what is already there to make it more like one thing and less another.

When I didn’t have the bravery to paint, canvases and make real art, I was very happy to scribble in the corners of a placemat while waiting for food. Because that was a literal and metaphorical pareidolia: literal, because there was probably a little design there that looked like a face, or a hamburger that I could make into a hamburger-o-aurus. But also more symbolically that it was not trying to make art. I was there to wait for food.

Ambient audio: Hey, how are you doing?

DZ: I know that on my own part, I have never made anything worthwhile with my creative abilities by starting from the point of “I am going to make art now.” We invest a lot into the idea of art, and especially what is good art, and what is successful art. Even at the same time, acknowledging that “good” in terms of art is a very squishy thing to put your finger on. Is it? Is it art, is it good, because it’s beautiful? Clearly not. Is it good, because everyone likes it. Clearly not many people would argue that actually, if a lot of people like it, that’s probably a sign that is bad art. So that’s my issue is that, especially the capital A on the art, I think, is putting the focus in the wrong place warm. It’s putting the focus on the result. And on the acceptance of the result when I think the power of it is in the doing.

Ambient audio with boy: You like dancing? I cannot dance….

DZ:
You’re allowed to have things you don’t like, that don’t work for you. But also to be able to identify that we do have this in common in some way. Yeah, there’s something we excel at. And there’s something we are not so comfortable with. And we almost always focus on the things we’re uncomfortable with without celebrating the things that we’re great at.

I’ve noticed there’s a kind of a yin yang polarized experience between the people who are very comfortable drawing from their imagination, but really stressed out about drawing anything from life, and the people who are the exact opposite.

Because it’s very easy to convincingly argue that if you cannot draw something while looking at it, you are a terrible artist. And that if you cannot make something up from your imagination, you are a terrible artist. And almost everyone I meet is very good at sort of tripping themselves up over this thing, then whatever other people can do, well must be what’s important. And whatever I do well, that doesn’t count.

Ambient audio with Zinn and boy: Excuse me, can you tell me how to draw like you? How did you do that robot standing one? “Ohhhh that was a hard one.”

DZ:
Now that I’ve spent some time drawing almost always out in the world somewhere, when I’ve run into situations recently, where I wanted or was required to draw something on a piece of paper, it felt really unsurprisingly uncomfortable. It feels like drawing creatures in an empty blank cage. Not only do they have nothing to help inspire them and support them, but they don’t even exist as part of the real world. Now, they just existed this little four sided, little barrier, and it feels rude — to the ones I think of as my friends — to do that.

And in the meantime, the one of the strange upsides of pandemic is that I got to test a boast that I’ve been making for years and years and years that when I’ve been traveling, sometimes on the other side of the globe, talking to people about drawing on the street, I have boasted in the past, that even if for some reason, I was, you know, condemned to not be allowed to leave my own one street, I would not run out of places to draw.

And then when the shutdown happened, I got the chance to test that out. And I spent an entire year drawing, you know, within walking distance of my house, and I never ran out of places to draw, I drew almost exclusively within one block of my house for an entire year. And I still have places left on my mental to do list that I haven’t gotten to yet.

And only this spring have I finally started to maybe think about maybe going to blocks

Ambient audio: My book has all the secrets I know…

DZ:
It’s also been an opportunity to see how much ephemerality is really the universal condition that even things we think of as permanent? You know, I could think, oh, that’s an interesting crack in the ground, but I have stuff I should do today, I’m going to come back because that cracks gonna be there for a long time. Not always so because not only do cracks get fixed, cracks change over time they widen and they shift

The permanent ground has more in common with my dust than it does with any kind of actual permanence.

Ambient audio: How did you do the robot standing one?

DZ:
They did call me Eyeore when I was a child. And it was well earned as a nickname I didn’t add which I think is why I do this. I do this because I’m actually a pretty anxious and gloomy person by nature. You know, I’ve been a worrier since I was three feet tall.

when I am drawing creatures on the street, I am drawing what reality failed to provide. It’s actually an answer to not having enough whimsy n my life that I’ve taken this whimsical path.

DH:
Awesome.

DZ:
Now it is true that they’re also crowding around me increasingly all the time. So when people have trouble talking to me in public, it’s probably because one of my imaginary friends keeps popping up between their face and mine, and wanting to be talked to instead. It might be evidence that there is whimsy available to our use. And yes, I think it’d be nice if people similar to me found their own source of this whimsy.

there is a, there is a dynamic, that, that answers the question I get most often, where people want to know why I’m not sad, that these drawings are destroyed by rain, and wind. And some people are very uncomfortable, with my not being uncomfortable about this. it’s meant, I think, in part as a compliment, like, “oh, but this is so special, why aren’t you trying to hold on to it longer?”

Holding on to things is rarely a source of comfort and ease. That’s pretty much where anxiety comes from, is holding on to things. From any kind of spiritual philosophical angle, they will eventually probably tell you yet letting go is where you find your ease and comfort, not holding on. It’s almost always about letting go

But it’s also just a question of the reality of these admittedly imaginary friends — that you don’t expect your friend to sit in the same place for weeks and weeks at a time without moving or about whether they were okay. And your friends, you certainly don’t, you know, put up in the attic, in a pile, like a painter does with paintings. You can’t store your friends. That’s, that doesn’t feel real to me at all. So if I was creating these creatures on paper, and then filing them away, that would reduce the reality quite a lot. Whereas the relationship I do have, which I did stumble into by accident, so I’m not giving myself too much credit, is that if you spend some time with this friend on the sidewalk, making him or her visible to other people, and then say goodbye and go home, that’s more how friendships work. And if you come back to that spot a few days later, and they’re gone, that’s what you would expect to have happen. Because what friends do is they show up again, somewhere else in another time, in another place, and you spend more time together. That’s how it should work. So their reality is very much dependent on their appearances not lasting forever.

Ambient audio: I deliberately put off doing the legs

I much prefer that they come and go as they please. When they aren’t there the next day, I feel fairly confident in my artists brain that there’s somewhere else doing something else. And that sometimes has been confirmed because people have sent me pictures of the characters that I draw. And so on the occasion when I wasn’t drawing them, they were with this other person, which is fair, I’m not jealous. I shouldn’t be like that. Yes, please go up into this other place and be drawn by this person and spend some time with them. And I’ll see you when I see you.

Many many years ago, by sheer luck, someone sent me a photo from the streets of Sao Paulo of a piece of graffiti that was clearly Sluggo as I had drawn him here sweeping leaves under the sidewalk. So within maybe a year of my drawing him for the first time he was down in Brazil without me.

Ambient audio All right, how you comin? How you comin, kid? He’s little dappled, but that’s ok. Oh well we’ll make it work.

DZ:
Well, it’s something that I’ve found a very comfortable place with in my art, you know, using the obstacles of a not-blank canvas to avoid what I find the much more terrifying prospect of a blank canvas. And it’s something which I’m hoping over time I can carry over to the rest of my life.

Because I’m sometimes shocked with how much I am still prone to seeing an obstacle as an obstacle and seeing a limitation of choices. So I want to make it clear that I’m struggling a lot with the lessons of my own silly drawings whenever it’s not involving just the sidewalk and chalk. And yet, it seems to be a pretty clear message that at almost any moment, there’s something which seems like an unbearable problem, which has usually been labeled unbearable, and also labeled a problem by a pretty narrow definition in our own heads as to why this is something we have to be upset about. And on very rare occasions, I’ve found that drawing from the lessons of Nadine and Sluggo I can take a moment to consider like, “Are you sure that this is really a problem? And if it is a problem, are you sure it’s an insurmountable intolerable problem?”

Ambient audio: You can borrow some chalk

another interesting experiment I’ve tried running is imagine that maybe there is a future me that is able to go back and change stuff. And that what’s happening now is the result of having changed everything that could possibly have been changed so far and this, as miserable this might be, it could be that this is the result of having avoided Lord knows what

Ambient audio: Smudge here, smudge there.

DZ:
Well I think as a as a pathologically shy person. I’m in a way, it’s probably good to make this this confession. If you’re shy enough that you worry about interacting successfully in normal circumstances, a surprisingly effective way to deal with that is to be so deliberately abnormal in those circumstances. I mean, you’re kind of off the chart where if people find you crawling on the ground, drawing with crayolas at the age of 50. So any sentence you put together when they talk to you is going to seem pretty impressive.

It warns people that you know, this conversation might be a little weird because look what I’m doing while we talk. It’s also true in this is another aspect of what we’ve been talking about. That when you are making art, when you’re trying to be creative, it’s very easy to, to think too much about what you’re doing. the best way to avoid that is to have someone distract you. And get that part of your brain focused on answering a question over here so that the rest of your brain and the rest of your body in mind can just do it.

By now, it’s pretty obvious that I do talk to imaginary creatures — not usually out loud, but sometimes it gets to that.There can be an etiquette problem that I’ve run into: I’m not yet brave enough to ever ask a real flesh and blood person to please wait a moment until I finished talking to this imaginary mouse. I’ve often wanted to say that because the mouse does not speak very loud. And as we’ve discussed, the mouse is often trying to help me figure out why I’m there and what I’m doing. And as soon as an actual human being speaks, they drown out so much with their real vocal cords, and their actual words, that there have been some tense moments where it would be nice to be able to just block out the whole world and pay attention to the specs on the ground. But if I had that I would probably start overthinking and mess it up. Because seeing too much..

Ambient audio: You guys were drawing down there. I didn’t want to take up too much spce.

DZ:
The other good argument for making art in public. And especially making art in public with children’s toys, with a tool that we all are familiar with, my best hope of getting someone to reconnect with the artists, they were when they were three years old using chalk is to be out in public using chalk.

Very young children, to their credit, are completely unimpressed with anything I can draw, because they understand that they are just as capable, if not more so of creating great art. They haven’t been told yet or gotten this self-doubt yet that says like, “No, no, no, you’re terrible at this.” No, they are fantastic at art. The older the person is the more help they need, reconnecting with that kid that they used to be. And so I’m hoping, and I’ve had some evidence that this is working, that by being willing to make art in public and risk making something that looks stupid, but it will be so I made stupid with chalk the washes away in the rain, so who cares?, is the best way to get more people, especially in that middle range between three years old and 50 years old to think, “No, I can do this.”

And it’s an interesting thing, because it used to be when people want to make fun of art, like modern art. Let’s say my kid can do that. Which is true, but not in the way they think. Because the real response to that that complaint, that joke is well yeah, your kid can do it, but I bet you can’t. And that’s the whole point.”

DH:
And here I thought we were going to discuss the art of smudging …

Well, this conversation came at a time when my soul needed a good dose of wisdom and I am grateful for it. I hope you are too. With all the madness in this world — the political wrangling, the division, the tendency to go negative instead of positive — we could all use more David Zinn in our lives. He challenged me to start a story on the sidewalk… “Once upon a time…” in chalk and see what happens. I will keep you posted.

Till then, find us wherever you get your podcasts and keep your eyes on the prize. A flying pig might be right around the corner. Thanks for listening. Take it easy, and as always, Go Blue.

Obstacle or opportunity?

David Zinn has more friends than anyone can count. It’s a rare condition for someone so “pathologically shy,” so anxious, and so naturally prone to gloom. Granted, many of his friends have yet to materialize, but it’s certain they will appear when he needs them most. He just requires a weather-beaten sidewalk and his wooden box of chalk.

Zinn begins to fill in the lizard

Zinn’s whimsical “lizard” has a mane of green hair. (Image: D. Holdship.)

Zinn’s imaginary posse includes countless whimsical creatures emerging from cracks and stumps, sprouting weeds as hair, and teaching life lessons amid their pock-marked surroundings.

“I am very comfortable using the obstacles of a non-blank canvas to avoid the much more terrifying prospect of a blank canvas,” the artist says. “And it’s something I hope I can carry over to the rest of my life, because I’m sometimes shocked with how much I am still prone to seeing an obstacle in life as an obstacle.”

So just remember: What appears to be a three-dimensional flying pig with a balloon (Philomena, for instance) may be Zinn working through an existential crisis on a cracked piece of pavement.

Working with found objects sets the stage for Zinn to make his imaginary friends visible to everyone else. You might catch Sluggo, the stalk-eyed green dude emerging from a snowdrift before it melts. Look closely at an abandoned umbrella and you’ll notice an ideal shelter for Nadine the tiny book-reading mouse. (She’s bit of a mentor to Zinn, the one who helps him figure out why he’s here, and what he’s doing.)

“Since I often don’t know the fate of my own drawings, I don’t know who is going to see them or what effect it might have,” he says. “So there’s a faith aspect of just assuming the best, and that we’re living in the best possible circumstances that were available at the time.”

Putting it out there

Cute boy with chalk on his palms

This boy who claimed “he couldn’t do art” drew a colorful heart on the ground — and smudged! (Image: D. Holdship.)

Philosopher Zinn actually graduated with a creative writing degree from U-M’s Residential College and spent much of his career as a commercial artist and designer. Ann Arbor residents may recognize the posters, signage, advertising, and other promotional work he has produced for clients ranging from U-M’s Gilbert & Sullivan society to the shops at Kerrytown. And since 1987, locals have grown accustomed to spotting his colorful critters underfoot, only to lose them again as soon as the elements erase them into the ether.

“People often want to know why I’m not sad that these drawings are destroyed by rain and wind,” Zinn says. “And some people are very uncomfortable with my not-being-uncomfortable about this. But I have found that holding on to things is rarely a source of comfort and ease. That’s pretty much where anxiety comes from: holding on to things. Letting go is where you find your ease and comfort, not holding on.””

Long ago, Zinn let go of his identity as “Artist with a capital A.” He much prefers the lower-case version, the kind of art that is temporary, outside, and inspired by an existing image. He likens it to pareidolia, the concept of seeing faces in the clouds. He describes his method as “augmented pareidolia,” in which he catches a glimpse of something and “connects the dots.” Pretty soon that big flat weed spreading across the cement is a snaggle-toothed fish accepting a piece of cake from an unflappable mouse. In a boat, no less.

Zinn shares his wisdom with lower-case artists of all ages through Ted Talks, tutorials, and his books, The Chalk Art Handbook, Underfoot Menagerie, and Temporary Preserves. He photographs his work and delights followers on social media with his deceptively cute drawings.

Letting it go

Zinn photographs his final piece

Sun dapples drive Zinn a little crazy. But this tiny character riding a giant lizard seems to be holding one. (Image: D. Holdship.)

Throughout the pandemic of 2020-21, he challenged himself to draw solely on the block surrounding his house. It was a boast he’d been making for years: that he’d never run out of options. And while it turned out to be true, “I’ve been thinking about venturing onto the next block,” he says.

Zinn still has a mental list of spots on his to-do list and has learned not to procrastinate when he finds a splotch, a weed, or a crack that inspires.

“It’s been an opportunity to see that ephemerality is really the universal condition,” he says, “even among things we think of as permanent. I could think, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting crack in the ground, but I’m going to come back because that crack’s gonna be there for a long time.’

“Not always so,” he continues. “Not only do cracks get fixed, cracks change over time. They widen and they shift. The permanent ground has more in common with my dust than it does with any kind of actual permanence.”

Comments

  1. John Boyer - 1959

    Your dad was a classmate of mine at Swarthmore. Played the oboe. He later married your mom. We visited them in 2011? and he acquainted us with your art. We approve and have several pieces including a cup with Sluggo on it. Thought you would want to know. Hope your mom and dad are OK! Please tell them we are fine too.

    Reply

  2. Rainey Lamey - 1985, 1990

    What I love most are the creativity, universality (youngest to oldest of us love Zinn art), and the kindness. I’ve yet to read a Zinn quip that came at anyone’s expense. Humor of the very best kind.

    Reply

  3. Audrey Gebber - 1990

    Every year at our annual art fair, students from the art classes at the school where I teach create chalk art for the crowds. I showed the art instructor some of your work, and he didn’t know how to respond: it’s so much more creative than anything he and his students ever do that he just stared and nodded without saying a word, visibly too jealous (and insecure) to admit to your artistry and your keen ability to find art in almost everything, not to mention your talent. I felt so proud of you — and I’m proud to know you, my friend.

    Reply

  4. Tish Lehman - 1986

    I raised my children looking for Zinn creatures on the walls and sidewalks of Ann Arbor, and am pleased that the utility box on my street has a wonderful green beast looking at me whenever I passed. But it wasn’t until I bought his book for my daughter that I saw a picture of David Zinn. Oh, my! He looks so much like his father, whose class in the early seventies on the intersection of academics and the new technology of computers small enough to have in our houses delighted me. Dr. Zinn was so wise and so caring, inspiring in the class and taking the time to worry about my uneven gait when my cowboy boots became too worn for function. I’m delighted to see the family resemblance in making the world better for all us strangers passing by.

    Reply

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