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Stateside Podcast: David Zinn’s chalk world

Take yourself back to when you were 9 years old. It’s the summer time and your friend next door just invited you to come outside to draw on the sidewalk. What are you going to draw with? Chalk, of course.

David Zinn is someone who never stopped drawing with sidewalk chalk. Today, the Ann Arbor resident goes around looking for the perfect slab of concrete to set down his box of chalk and start working. He recently published a book about his life and art, Chance Encounters: Temporary Street Art by David Zinn.

Zinn transitioned from paper drawing to chalk drawing because of how Michigan’s good weather tends to come and go. He said he feels like he needs to go outside on days with great weather.

“Having lived here my entire life, I’m very well aware that we have beautiful weather in Michigan sometimes and I value that greatly,” Zinn said. “Much more so than living somewhere where it’s beautiful all the time, because if it’s beautiful all the time, you could always wait for another day to go enjoy it. Whereas here in Michigan, if you get a beautiful day, it feels at least to me, very much like a moral imperative to find any excuse to go drink that in, because you don’t know how long it’s going to be before that kind of day comes back.”

Zinn has utilized everyday parts of the sidewalk and incorporated them into drawings, turning orange sandbags into the bodies of goldfish, or grass on the sidewalk into the spikes of a lizard. Zinn said he likes this because it makes starting a little easier.

“Almost any artist you talk to is going to have the same hesitancy and fear of a blank canvas,” he said. “This grown-up feeling that maybe we should be embarrassed by whatever is going to happen next when we try to make art. So we have to find some maneuver to reconnect with that kid version of us who didn’t really care what anybody else thought and was just happy and proud to be able to leave the world different than the way they found it, even if that’s scribbling on the wall and getting in trouble for it.”

The pandemic, Zinn said, makes him feel like he is in the “100 acre wood” because it is just “me and my imaginary friends going on very quiet adventures.” The transition back to doing drawings with other people walking around him has been different particularly with doing group drawings.

As for whether or not he liked being alone or likes having people around now, Zinn said that he likes being “the one guy in the corner.” He said it reassures him as a former shy child who didn’t feel like he fit in with everyone else.

“I found out very quickly that if you do something completely out of the ordinary in public, like crouching on the ground and pulling out a box of chalk, you are sending a convenient message to any passers, ‘okay, that guy ain’t even trying to be normal,’ ” Zinn said. “And there’s a strange amount of freedom in that.”

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Dan Netter joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2022 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying Journalism and Social Relations & Policy.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.