We think Jonathan Zawada has a pretty good thing going on. He seems calm and at ease having recently relocated from Sydney to Los Angeles. And while he is no newcomer to the world of design, he is eager to see what he can shake up in the more established art world over there. He chooses to remain blissfully unaware of trends and prefers to focus on his artwork, spending most days painting at his studio. And I guess you’re doing something right if your apartment gets featured on the Selby!
I spoke to him on the phone while he was at his new place in L.A about why art is more fun than design, about selling paintings to Elton John and about how you sometimes need to forget about what’s going on around you to really do something different.
He doesn’t read magazines anymore (especially not blogs). Doesn’t have a facebook or twitter account, although he did recently take on Instagram. And while not being willing to give up social media myself just yet; living a slightly more disconnected existence would surely lead to a more productive, ultimately stress-free and dare I say it, real lifestyle. Go out and smell the roses. Or in Jonathan’s case, go and lock yourself in a studio and paint for 8 hours.
Karl Henkell: So is L.A really an urban wasteland?
Jonathan Zawada: It’s pretty shit *laughs*. I guess it depends where you live. I’m doing a commission for a guy that lives in a gated community in Beverly Hills and it’s ridiculous. Like topiary parks of elephants and giraffes for the kids. It’s out of control. It’s like Disneyland.
KH: Have you met any celebrities?
JZ: I met Pharell which was funny. Last week I went to this party for Damien Hirst. All these amazing artists were there as well as Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson. I walked past Agyness Deyn and I was double taking because I thought she was a friend. Annie, my wife, saw Ted Danson in traffic, as well as Charlize Theron jogging. It’s pretty ridiculous.
KH: I bumped into Stifler’s Mom at a bar in Hollywood when I was in L.A. She was actually pretty true to her on-screen persona hanging off this 20-year-old dude who was apparently runner-up to American Idol that year…
JZ: So good. The best one we saw was Funkhouser from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development. He has this gravel-ly, stiff voice. That was probably the most exciting one.
KH: What’s your gallery like in L.A?
JZ: My gallery here in L.A (Prism) is just this big, legitimate art gallery that sells big oil paintings and stuff. I feel like I’ve been slowly transitioning away from the more commercial, product-y, fashion stuff. It’s taken a while to switch into the headspace of doing these massive oil paintings that take a really long time to do.
KH: Did your show at Prism draw a celebrity crowd?
JZ: Well the gallery’s in West Hollywood and Elton John actually bought a painting from my first show. He patted me on the head and I had this weird little conversation with him about moving here and stuff…
KH: Do you find it bizarre that your work might be hanging above an ivory piano in his house somewhere?
JZ: Yeah totally. It’s really weird. All the work from that show got flung far and wide. Sporadically, the gallery sends me a photo of where it’s been installed in a house in New York, or above someone’s bed in London. It’s all over the place.
KH: Do you want to hold onto them?
JZ: Umm, no. I mean when I’m doing a work I’ll be thinking, “I don’t want to give this away”. But then once it’s done I’m fine with it. The process is more what I’m tied to than the finished product.
KH: Let’s talk about the t-shirt prints you did for S2A. Classic grey lead stuff…
JZ: Yeah, I did one that was a stone head, which was done digitally, or at least digitally distorted and then drawn from that image. The other one was a bouquet of flowers, which were drawn from lots of references of flowers, figuring out a vague composition and then going ahead and drawing it. I love doing that stuff; for me it’s the medium that comes most naturally.
Jonathan Zawada x S2A
Jonathan Zawada x S2A
KH: With greylead drawings, is it essentially the amount of time you put in that determines the outcome?
JZ: Yeah totally. I spent the last week doing some for an upcoming show and I noticed that they were much finer than anything I’d done before. I think through painting I’ve become calmer and more patient with it. It’s really tempting to draw things in bigger bits and get quick results but that never works for me!
KH: Do you find the process or the end product more satisfying?
JZ: I find the process frustrating because I never leave myself enough time for it to be really relaxing; but at the same time I enjoy it, which is weird. With paintings, I’ve realised it’s frustrating and painful to do things that are really laborious, but at the same time sitting there being frustrated prompts me to think of something else to do. It’s a weird catch-22 situation. I wish I was doing something else, but I’m also quite happy doing it.
KH: Do you still do record covers?
JZ: Yeah sporadically. I’ve got relationships with a few artists like The Presets and then there’s a couple of bands here in L.A that i’ve been working with.
KH: What made you shift more toward the art world?
JZ: My graphic design work got to a stage that I didn’t predict or even pursue. I was doing things like record covers and t-shirt prints where it wasn’t so much design anymore, but rather people wanting you to come up with ideas. Which is great. But I really like working with people and coming up with new things every time. So if I was going to be doing my own drawings, I felt I may as well be doing art.
KH: I guess that’s where the distinction between being a graphic designer and an artist becomes blurry…
JZ: Exactly. So it seemed like a good time to do a show. It was a show I’d been wanting to do for a really long time of like big, odd, oil paintings of these weird landscapes (‘Over Time‘). You can’t really sell that sort of stuff in Australia, there’s no market for it.
‘A Comparison of Light Absorbtion or Why Our Planet is Green’
KH: What’s it been like moving over to L.A?
JZ: It’s been good. It’s funny, it would’ve been really different if I was like 24; but instead I’m 30, married and have a cat. I had a pretty routine, homely life going on in Sydney so it was a bit of an ordeal to pack up everything and move over here.
Jonathan’s current studio
KH: What’s your studio like?
JZ: I’ve been painting every day in the basement of the gallery. I lock myself away for 8 or so hours a day and paint. L.A is a crazy place. I couldn’t have afforded to do what I’m doing in Sydney. Rents are way too high. Like the paintings I did for the show now, I had to rent a single car garage with one power point and no lights at the end of my street. Pretty much the worst conditions for painting!
Jonathan at work
KH: What do you miss most from home?
JZ: We had an amazing sofa. It’s this giant black thing that was incredibly soft. It was like a huge glove that cradled you to sleep.
KH: What do you listen to while you paint?
JZ: I listen to a lot of Science podcasts. There’s one on ABC (Australian) radio national called ‘The Science Show‘, which I love.
KH: Isn’t that a bit distracting to listen to?
JZ: It’s good I think. I mean I listen to music as well, but I used to do a lot of work building websites and things and I could do that listening to music. But painting really only uses 50% of your brain, so if I don’t have something else to concentrate on I get frustrated.
KH: What bands are you into at the moment?
JZ: Recently I’ve been getting into a band called The Psychic Paramount. Then this other group called Shabazz Palaces. There’s composer I’m into called Simeon ten Holt who does modernist classical composition with syncopated rythyms. It’s really bizarre. Its essentially programmed, so that each musicians part can be started and stopped at any time. Sort of like a program rather than a piece of music.
KH: What artists influence your work?
JZ: There’s a bunch of artists I love like Koons, Ed Ruscha and this amazing Japanese artist called Minoro Namata. A lot of my new landscape work is weirdly connected to this video game called Red Dead Redemption. None of the work looks like it, but it’s in there somewhere. Otherwise, a good thing about being in L.A is just being free of old influences. I don’t have any of my books with me and I haven’t really been looking at the Internet much. So i’m completely free of that, which is nice.
KH: Is there more of an art community in L.A than in Sydney?
JZ: Yeah definitely. There’s a proper art establishment and also a younger art scene. People here can afford to live and be artists. People are just genuinely doing what they want to do, rather than wishing they were somewhere else.
KH: What do you still want to do in work-life?
JZ: Ideally I’d like to continue painting and focusing more on the art side of things. I still enjoy doing design work but I realised a few years ago that you have a time-limit in the design world as it’s inherently focused on youth and youth product. At some point, I’m no longer young and that runs out. Unless you make the decision to start your own studio and really commit to it, you can’t really survive forever.
KH: So there’s a burnout factor?
JZ: I guess you just become irrelevant, which is totally understandable. I thought I’d rather cut it off and try something else with more longevity in it. Something I feel like I can do until I’m 70 or 80 years old.
KH: Do you think graphic design is more trend based than art?
JZ: Yeah, which is a shame. That’s why I stopped doing t-shirt prints. The only one’s I did were those for S2A and a few others. I got really worried at the idea that my pencil drawings would maybe be popular for a few years and then they would go out of favour because the trend passes and then I’m fucked basically *laughs*, where I could’ve had a career. Instead you’re left as this little blip of a trend. Being tied to product and fashion, it’s inherently going to have a time limit attached to it. Just how music becomes representative of a time.
KH: Do you look back at stuff you’ve done in that way?
JZ: I probably block a lot of it out. I mean I feel like I’ve probably changed and learnt more about design so what I do is of a higher quality now. Things like the first Presets cover, which I know is something lots of people really love, feels incredibly dated to me. You get to the point where when you’re too aware of trends then it becomes your doom. For a long time I was completely unaware of it and then maybe in recent years figured it out a lot more. When the illusions gone, the appeal is gone and it’s no longer interesting. And you become incapable of thinking for yourself and coming up with your own ideas because your brain’s preoccupied with the trends that are happening and how what you’re doing fits in with that. It’s good being away from it all.
KH: So what’s the answer?
JZ: I guess its just to focus on having a nice life, eating good food, not stressing and worrying about things too much. When I do design work now I have complete freedom of headspace to interpret a brief purely for the problems that are in it, not for any other thing I want to add to it. Not because I’ve seen something I liked that I really wish I had done and gone off to try and mimic it. I guess that’s how things become trends anyway. You wished you’d done something, so you do something like it, which just reinforces the trend…
KH: I liked how you put up your inspiration/references for each project on your old website. Not everyone would do that. I guess it’s good not to be too protective of your sources…
JZ: Yeah totally. You’re kinda doomed if you’re trying to keep them a secret. Someone will figure it out eventually and then you’re screwed. What’s your point of difference then? For some reason the rest of the world seems quite alright with it, but graphic designers seem to think that they don’t do it. That it’s really wrong. And it’s not, it’s just normal. I found that by being really honest with references, it forces me to only use them once. You can’t go back a second time and are forced to find new things.
KH: What are you reading at the moment?
JZ: One’s called ‘Science is Culture‘. It’s a series of conversations with artists like David Byrne talking to different scientists, which is really interesting. There’s a journal I subscribe to that used to be called ‘Dot Dot Dot‘, which is now called ‘Dexter Sinister‘. And I just got given a book by Steven Hawking called ‘The Grand Design‘. A broad summary of the universe as he likes to do. I find all that stuff really comforting to read about because it’s so far removed. I really enjoy reading about science for that reason. From years of working in fashion and music; these things are real, you know?
KH: Are there any mags you like?
JZ: No, I’ve stopped reading them altogether. I get really anxious reading magazines. I get really stressed out about it and feel like I’m not doing enough.
KH: I guess you wouldn’t be checking blogs then…
JZ: They’d stress me out even more. They’re like magazines on crack!
KH: To thank them for their time, we like to offer our guest interviewees a present from our collection. What piece from the collection would you like?
JZ: I bloody love the Motorpsycho jacket!
OTHER WORKS :
See more of his work at http://zawada.com.au/
‘MEET’ is a series of interviews with friends of S2A where we catch up on their lives, their current projects, their creativity, inspiration and whatever else happens to be on their minds!