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Cracking the creativity conundrum: chalk artist David Zinn on ephemeral art, the power of pareidolia and finding freedom in limitations

By MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeff Rovner

Imagine walking along a city sidewalk, head down and lost in thought. There at the edge of the pavement lies a charcoal drawing of Mickey Mouse. He’s sporting his iconic profile pose with the signature smile, eyes slid to the side and that thumbprint nose. But no ears. A fully executed Mickey minus his most essential mouse feature. 

David Zinn came upon this scene as a teenager in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This was 1985, before the internet, when folks were often left with unanswered questions. Zinn thought maybe he imagined the whole random episode. With no other option, he went on his way and forgot about it.

A few weeks later, Zinn passed the scene again, this time at night. A streetlamp cast a shadow across the sidewalk. It hit a set of parking meters shaped like those iconic ears and perfectly projected them onto Mickey’s bare head. 

“I suddenly understood this seemingly random thing had been so precisely placed for such a ridiculous reason,” Zinn said in a 2020 TED Talk at the University of Michigan. “It made me childishly happy. I wanted to tell everyone I knew so they could have the same experience. Then I realized they couldn’t have the same experience unless I let them discover it for themselves.” This observation captures not only much of Zinn’s subsequent career, but some of his philosophies about art and life. 

Last week, the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Commission brought David Zinn and his popular sidekicks – Sluggo the green monster, Philomena the flying pig, Nadine the mouse, and many more – to create a week-long scavenger hunt for unobtrusive chalk art around our town. While the whimsical drawings were delightful (combining colorful cartoon characters with remarkable trompe-l’oeil effects), the man behind them had some profound insights about art, artists, creativity and life itself. We caught up with him after Saturday’s demonstration in Laguna’s Promenade to learn more about Zinn and the life philosophies that drive his art. 

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Chalk artist and illustrator David Zinn did a one-hour demonstration on the Forest Avenue Promenade last Saturday

Finding freedom in limitation

Ask Zinn about his biggest fears and “blank canvas” might bubble to the top. Rumor has it there’s an empty canvas that’s sat in Zinn’s garage for 23 years and counting. A clean slate presents endless possibilities, and possibilities can feel terrifying. 

“In theory, a blank canvas should be the most wonderful freedom. An opportunity everyone should long for,” Zinn said. “It’s actually the most paralyzing freedom you can ask for. When there are too many options, there’s too much freedom. There’s too much fear in our heads, whether we’re artists or not, that maybe whatever we do to this blank page will not be an improvement. We’ll regret the marks we make.”

As a kid, Zinn and his brother would play the doodle game. They’d each make a squiggle on a sheet of paper and challenge the other to turn it into something. There was no possibility for failure. It was all just play. 

This gave Zinn an idea. Look at any piece of concrete or strip of street and notice the many natural blemishes. There are cracks and holes, oil stains and metal pipes, tufts of weeds coming out of crevices, or metal grates and manholes. Stare for a moment and your brain can’t help but construct a story around it. It’s why we see animals in clouds and faces in weirdly shaped vegetables. It’s how our ancestors saw constellations in the stars. It’s a phenomenon known as pareidolia – the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. Zinn refers to his work as pareidolic anamorphosis or anamorphic pareidolia. Incorporating natural imperfections and found objects, Zinn uses colorful chalks and black charcoal to create cartoonish creatures in some surprising locations. 

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A faded Sluggo and his friend Squirrel showcase how natural cracks and abrasions in the sidewalk create artistic opportunities

Chalk is the perfect choice. It’s cheap and childish. No one expects you to know what you’re doing. And, Zinn said, if it breaks, you have twice as much. The stakes are low, the effects are temporary.

Plus, street art gets Zinn out of his house on beautiful days (often a rarity in Ann Arbor). “It began to feel like a deathbed regret to sit staring at a computer on a beautiful day,” he said. But unrestrained freedom outside once again forced Zinn to look for limitations and be disciplined with himself. If he was going to sit outside, he’d better be working. Sidewalk chalk art imposed the right amount of limitation for Zinn’s creativity to thrive. 

The art of avoiding children’s books

Getting kicked in the head is an occupational hazard for chalk artists. Oblivious passersby don’t always notice artists working beneath their feet. Zinn often avoids the problem by incorporating large objects – like brick walls and utility poles – into his creations. If he’s pressed against a pole, maybe people won’t step on him. 

Zinn once drew a dragon circling a streetlamp. By the time he finished, the dragon seemed to be staring at nothing. So, he incorporated a mouse as a focal point. Then he felt sorry for the mouse, small and defenseless beside the enormous dragon, so he gave the mouse a tiny sword. Soon people clamored to hear the story behind the image. If Zinn told the truth (he feared getting kicked in the head, his dragon needed something to look at, and he felt sympathy for a mouse) the backstory would feel unsatisfying. Better for the viewers, and their experience, to write their own mental stories. Students from around Ann Arbor shared their tales, each one wonderful and unique. One decided the mouse was a dentist. “I can’t compete with that,” Zinn said. “I made the thing I intended to make. It’s done.”

Still, Zinn is routinely asked about writing children’s books. Although his undergraduate degree was in creative writing, it continues to be a request he resists. Turns out, the blank page looks a lot like the blank canvas. 

“When I was getting my creative writing degree, whenever I sat down to fill some pages, part of me was thinking about what time it was and wondering when I could stop,” Zinn said. “You know you’ve found your thing if you don’t notice the passage of time while you’re doing it.”

Then along came Nadine, who arrived during the pandemic. Dressed in a blue frock and pink shoes, the little mouse kept showing up. She waved from windows. She explored a dark abyss with a tiny flashlight. She offered a cat a cup of tea and sat with an owl on the sidewalk. Soon The Untold Tales of Nadine unfolded into a pamphlet-sized paperback, all the drawings created within walking distance of Zinn’s house during 2020. Every other page shows a picture of Nadine doing something unique, each with a short caption, and the facing page is left open for someone to write their story. Zinn did the writer a favor by removing the blank page and providing a prompt. 

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Nadine hangs in her hammock reading a book on a brick outside the entrance of Nuance on Forest Avenue

“When people see one of these drawings and think, ‘That would make a great story, you need to make this into a children’s book,’ they like the story because they made up the story,” Zinn said. “They may not think they made up the story, but they presumed what story I’m trying to tell. There are very good odds that if I told them my story, it would be disappointing. ‘No, that’s not the story. Make up the real story. The story in my head – tell that story!’ Artists should never explain their art to somebody. It’s like trying to explain a joke. So, this is my sneaky dodge.”

The Zen of Zinn

The ephemeral aspect of Zinn’s art puts him at odds with most traditional artists who encase their pieces in glass and aspire to canonize their work in collectors’ homes, museums, or galleries. Zinn’s creations, by contrast, begin to fade the moment they’re completed. Not only has he made peace with their temporality, he’s embraced it. Even after being told the Lumberyard Restaurant hosed down its courtyard each day, Zinn still chose the patio as a palette for one of his pieces. 

We stood beside Philomena the Pig on Forest Avenue’s Promenade. During the hour we spent talking, two skateboarders rolled across her clouds. A gleeful toddler stomped on her face before settling down for a photo. Couples strolled over her, hand-in-hand, oblivious to Philomena under their feet. 

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Philomena flies through the clouds after Zinn’s public demonstration last Saturday

“I don’t usually hang around this long, so I normally wouldn’t see how people interact,” Zinn said. “But it’s a helpful reminder that just because this spot is now very special to me does not make it special to the universe.”

Zinn recounted a time in his hometown of Ann Arbor when he’d finished a piece and was packing to leave. He watched a man walk into the center of the image, where he stopped to make a call. “It wasn’t out of rudeness,” Zinn said. “He never saw it, which is evidence of how our brains work. Our minds are not objectively recording the world. Things literally seem bigger to you if they’re important to you.” 

Zinn pointed out that one foot doesn’t do any damage to a piece, but 1,000 feet will erase it completely. Still, I couldn’t help wincing each time someone stepped on Philomena. 

“Let me ask you,” Zinn said. “Would you feel this bothered if you were the one who created her?”

“That would be even worse,” I said. “But I still feel invested. I watched you make her.”

“To my mind,” Zinn said, “that should make it easier to let it go. You were present for the important part.” 

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Zinn poses over Philomena

We meandered onto the topic of Tibetan mandalas. Carefully constructed out of colorful sand, mandalas are used by monks for meditation. Once the mandala is complete, the monks set about destroying it by sweeping the sand away. The point, of course, is that nothing is permanent. “I always thought the sweeping was a little ridiculous,” Zinn said. “Let nature take its own course.” He pointed out a child running in circles around Philomena. “Life already does a great job teaching us about impermanence.” Allowing the monks to dictate the time and manner of destruction misses the point, he said. 

“In many cases, there’s no reason for me to be drawing in the first place. The work has no past. I’m not going to be able to save it, take it home, put it in a gallery or try to sell it. It has no future. All I’m left with is the present, which is strangely peaceful. Because most of those things – not just in art but with everything – are not good things. Worrying about the past is not a source of happiness. And worrying about the future usually isn’t productive. I have to be okay with the fact that this is only for right now. If I enjoyed drawing it, I’m done. I walk away.”

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Zinn created opportunities for people to play and make their own creations on the Promenade

Cultural Arts Manager Siân Poeschl said, “In discussing David Zinn, the conversation became about the concept of temporality. What would be the most fleeting and temporary of experiences? Chalk is a delicate material, a dust that can be washed or wiped away. Zinn’s work is universally understood, has no boundaries of value or cost of admittance, is innocent and shares the power of imagination that is a perfect fit for Laguna Beach.”

Zinn’s Eeyore personality creates a Piglet world

Despite the cheerful subject matter of his creations, Zinn is a self-described Eeyore. He grew up a shy and introverted kid who used drawing to escape human interaction. While he once used art to avoid people, he now uses it to connect with them. Still, flying pigs and friendly squirrels seem at odds with a guy who perceives most glasses as half empty. 

When asked about it he said, “If I thought the world was a happy place, I wouldn’t mess with it. I’d consider it perfectly adequate the way it was. Usually, I draw on the street because I’m not having a great day. I draw what reality fails to provide. It makes sense that I draw ridiculously cute, cheerful things because when I look around, I see no shortage of sad, serious things. Even though there may be sad, serious things going on in my head, why would I want to make those real? It’s bad enough up here. That’s where the Eeyore part makes sense. I’m creating the imaginary friends I need to get through the day.” 

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If Rasta Taco guests looked carefully, they would spy Nadine with her playful pup on the patio beneath their feet

Childish discoveries in intellectual environments

If Zinn’s experience with Mickey Mouse proves anything, it’s that private discoveries make for powerful experiences.

“If you put something small on the street, nine out of 10 people won’t notice,” Zinn said. “That tenth person will have a much more surreal experience because they’re aware no one else is seeing it. They might think – even for a moment – this was put here for them. And they’re not wrong. If you’re willing to risk most people not picking up what you put out there, you increase the possibility that the person who picks it up is getting more out of it because it’s not curated in any way.”

Growing up and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan – home to the University of Michigan which prides itself on its prestigious research programs – the academic environment can feel a little serious and intimidating. Zinn regards his art as potentially influential.

“I have to defend my choice of profession in my own head, because I live in a town with major research laboratories and all manners of knowledge. In a college town, having a bachelor’s degree makes you essentially a high school dropout. It’s a community where everyone compares themselves, so it feels weird knowing there are people nearby trying to cure cancer while I’m playing with chalk. Now I’ll never know – and I have to be okay with never knowing – but it’s possible that I could draw one of my silly drawings on Main Street and some brilliant person who’s working really hard on solving a serious life problem will walk across that piece of sidewalk, see that drawing and, even if it’s something they hate, even if they’re annoyed, the emotional/chemical reaction in their brain might change how the rest of their day goes. And that could impact something significant.”

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Who knows how Philomena might influence an unsuspecting bystander grappling with a hard problem?

The nebulous relationship between artist and audience

The ephemeral aspect of Zinn’s art makes questions about his audience even more interesting. When he’s demonstrating his drawings for a crowd, he’s a performance artist. The event itself is art. But what about all those little pieces he places around town, left to be discovered – or maybe not? “Then it becomes a more nebulous concept, because the audience is whoever sees it when you’re not there,” Zinn said. In a gallery or museum, artists can be certain their work is seen by someone. For Zinn, whose work fades fast and is often obscure, there are no guarantees. Is it art if no one sees it? 

Zinn used to ask his musician friends, “If you play music alone in a soundproof room, have you made art?” And what about vocalists? They can never experience their own art because it sounds different from the inside, and recording devices can’t accurately capture the unmediated experience of live music. Does that mean the only way art exists is in the space between the artist and their audience? Or is it possible that it exists on its own? 

This philosophical conundrum caused Zinn to define art as that which leaves the artist changed after having produced it. “I consider the making of any kind of art – and I would include napkin doodles to oil paintings to singing opera – as an experience that leaves the artist different. Even if no one hears it or sees it, even if you draw a masterpiece and immediately set fire to it, you’re now a different person having done it. Since we’re all connected, you still have an audience because you’re reentering the world as a different version of yourself in the aftermath of making art. There will be ripple effects. It’s art because it created a change in the world.” 

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Even if no one ever spied this party-hat dragon outside the DeBilzan Gallery, the world changed a bit just because Zinn created him

Why Laguna makes a perfect artistic playground

In many ways, Laguna’s unique and quirky culture created the perfect atmosphere to experience Zinn’s art. In other ways, Zinn challenged our town’s traditional artistic conceptions. “As the Arts Commission curates the temporary public art experience, we are looking locally and nationally for programming that is yet to occur in our community or anywhere else,” said Poeschl. “We’re looking for experiences that are thought provoking, healing, bring humor, or allow us to see our city through an artist’s eyes.” 

Last week was the second time Zinn brought his work to Laguna. “As far as I know, Laguna Beach is the only place that has not only a solid public arts organization, but a specific temporary public arts organization. That’s an unusually enlightened way to look at public art. I’m very impressed by that. I like this passion for putting art in random places and not worrying about whether it’s in a place of honor. It’s consistent with my desire to have art in places where you don’t expect to see it, because that’s where it will hit you the hardest. Laguna does that very well.”

He’s right. The place feels like the ideal setting to encounter an earless Mickey. It’s full of subversive artists and eccentric characters who aim to keep our town on its toes. 

“My goal is to create a sense that weird things can happen in this world, and you could contribute some yourself,” Zinn said. “The alternative is demanding nice, clean streets where nothing interesting ever happens.” 

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A child looks on as Zinn brings Philomena the flying pig to life