Why Chalk?

Why Chalk?

chalk drawing of frog in progress, using sprinler head as one of the frog's eyes

I spent most of my late childhood and early adulthood afraid of the idea of making art. I loved to doodle – almost to the exclusion of everything else – but I preferred drawing on placemats, napkins, and old homework that was headed for the trash bin anyway. Put me in front of a canvas with a brush in my hand and I’d seize up like a statue, immobilized by thoughts of all the things I might regret having painted. Give me three minutes with a ballpoint pen and the blank side of a bar coaster and I’d be a flurry of creative joy.

For years, I hid successfully from my fear of being an artist by working as a commercial illustrator. I know that sounds weird. It worked because everything I drew had a pragmatic reason to exist: a toy store needed a logo; the city government needed an explanation of why you can’t recycle a margarine tub; the local youth theater needed a poster for their surfer-dude adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. These are all very good excuses to draw things that no one expects to be a “work of art.”

My inner child was delighted to have an excuse to keep doodling, and I was amazed that he could pay the rent. I would still be illustrating recycling brochures today if it wasn’t for two things: computers and sunny days. 

I was working freelance out of an office in my home, which required me to sit in front of a computer all day. (Almost all commercial art involves a computer these days; some of my illustrations have never existed as anything other than pixels on a screen.) That computer sat next to a window where I could see exactly what the weather was like outdoors. This was deeply gratifying on snowy winter days when my commute was thirteen steps in bunny slippers, but frustrating on beautiful sunny days when my inner child – whose doodling skills I needed in order to pay the rent – had other priorities.

Inevitably, he and I came to an agreement: I could ignore my responsibilities and go outside, but only if I was still drawing something somewhere. That’s how I learned the inspirational power of sidewalk chalk and “pointless” ephemeral art.

Drawings on a sidewalk can’t be saved or hung in a gallery, and they’re certainly not trying to be works of art. Their best possible usefulness is to cheer up yourself and anyone else who happens to look down at the right moment, and as an excuse to play outside on a nice day. I highly recommend chalk. When’s the last time you made marks on the world just for the sheer joy of it?

- excerpt from Underfoot Menagerie, More Street Art by David Zinn
chalk drawing of a goblin looking out of a brick-sized hole in a wall
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