Interview: Jonathan Zawada

Revered amongst designers and a rising force in the art world — Jonathan Zawada has contributed much to our visual culture over the past decade. Never bound by medium, his works all share a unique approach and unwavering curiosity for exploring new and unchartered territories.

For the past 2 years, Jonathan and his wife have been living in sunny LA, where he has been focusing more on creating art, dreaming up quirky products and setting aside some time for a little bit of gardening.
We caught up with him to talk about life in LA, upcoming shows and living the dream.

What made you move to Los Angeles?
I have a gallery here called Prism. They don’t really formally represent artists but they do everything that a representation would normally entail. I did one show with them called Overtime which did really well. After that they were really interested in moving me over so they helped make it happen. They found me accommodation for the first year and gave me all sorts of opportunities, sponsored me and did all that stuff.

We assumed that we would loath Los Angeles. If you’d asked me 5 years ago, it would of been the last place on earth that I’d ever imagine I’d move. It’s a really weird thing to say but Elton John bought a painting in the first show and I had a brief conversation with him. I was talking about moving and the only thing he said with any real focus was, you really need to leave Australia. Little nudges like that helped a lot.

How do you find the art scene in LA?
It’s incredibly supportive. Growing up in Australia, especially in Sydney, it’s really insular and competitive at the same time. People don’t particularly want to help you necessarily. If you start succeeding they want to make things a little hard for you. Or maybe thats just how it feels. So as a result I never really involved myself too much in the scene there. Maybe it’s just because I’m fresh here that I feel that I can just be me and I don’t need to worry about things. I’ve found everyone here is just super friendly, really helpful, encouraging, and other artists are really nice–no weird tension or aggression.

You used to do a lot of graphic design and art direction, how did you transition to where you are now?
While doing a lot of that work, I was doing the odd exhibition. For a number of years it was a process of working to save money to pay for six weeks where I could stop doing commercial work and just focus on an exhibition. That meant that exhibitions were few and far between.

I really separated out the two practices. I decided when we moved that I would try my hardest to take a good year or two off doing commercial work. I still ended up doing a lot of commercial work in that time but it’s allowed me to be a bit more picky with those jobs. It felt much more challenging when I was starting to transition. I’d kept the two practices so separate that I felt they needed to be distinct.

When I did the first two shows they were very separated, but now, its been a couple of years and I’m coming to the realisation that I like doing all of it and should just treat everything as part of my practice. I can still do album covers for people and still do work for fashion labels. I guess I’m doing it slightly more on my terms now. I work with people where whatever I produce I’d be just as happy if this was my own artwork. It’s made me feel better about the work. I’m not so angry anymore.

Do you find most clients give you freedom?
The really tricky bit is the seemingly good clients, the ones that have a big budget or a high profile tend to have seen something before so they want me to do that again which I don’t really enjoy doing that much. One of the changes I’ve made to my commercial practice is taking the time to get to know the client before I agree to take the job on. So then I get a good rapport with them and I can pretty quickly figure out whether they are happy for me to come up with ideas or whether they’ve got something quite specific in their mind. And if they’ve got something specific I generally don’t do it.

It’s a weird inversion. In the past I was working on commercial jobs to pay for my art and it’s totally flipped around now. If I have a good show every year, that will pay for me to live for the year so I don’t need to stress about how much time I spend on commercial jobs which used to be a problem because I would come up with ideas that I would be able to afford to produce within the budget. I’d always be watching the clock. Now all that stress is gone and I can spend as long as I like which makes me so much happier with the output. All the work I’ve done since I made that change, I feel I’ve pushed my own limits into even better design. Its made it more interesting for me.

When you begin a new piece or series, do ideas come organically or do you already have a clear picture in mind?
Its getting more and more organic. Coming from a place where I’d have to budget out my time I’d always have figured out exactly what I would need for the show and what I was going to produce then sit down and make it. In the last year or so I’ve taken that whole process apart and I’ve started continually making everything that comes into my head whenever it does. I still don’t wake up in the morning, walk into an empty studio and start painting.

I write down every idea I have on a massive list and work through them. Most of the ideas I’m working on now are things that came to me when I was producing work for one or two exhibitions ago. It’s great thinking time when you’re just executing. It can be quite boring so your mind wanders I guess.

What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a big bunch of work that should be for a show in New York, its what I’ve been working towards all year. Most of the work for that is done, a lot of big big oil paintings and then some other marble… they’re side tables really. There are some weird elements in it, sculpture and other small pieces. We had a space for the show which ended up falling through so my gallery is trying to find an alternative space and figure all that stuff out. There is also a show in San Francisco which opens on the 8th of November and that’s print works, some drawings and an interactive piece.
And then putting together some pieces for a show in Australia and one in Japan which will hopefully be sometime in the first half of next year.

Do you normally get approached about doing a show?
I’m trying to get my head around that now. In the past I’d become quite lazy with that, I feel like now I need to start approaching people. Like the Japan show, I’ve had an agent there for 8 years now and they’re amazing so I think I’ll work with them to find a good space. I need to get better at that, approaching people and finding galleries and figuring out where I want things to go. I’ve always been in the habit of just sitting back and waiting for things to happen and saying yes or no. I need to be a bit more proactive I think.

Your work has evolved from detailed drawings of objects into landscapes and more abstract pieces. How has this come about?
I think it appears to be much more of a progression than it really is. I was looking back at some really old commercial work, and I saw one of the first commercial jobs I took on for a shoe company that is really similar to the painting from the last show. I’m trying to break away from where I’d segmented out my shows. In the past, a show would be one style or technique at a time. I’m trying to mix that all up now. I found it somehow limiting for me and maybe boring for other people.

Many of your works have digital references. How do you to use technology in your practice?
The last two shows the work is entirely generated in 3D first. I’ve spent almost as long on the computer as painting them and they take two weeks to paint. It always feeds back and forth. I’ve worked doing illustration on a computer since I was 16 so I like going back and forth between the two.

Who are some of your favourite artist/designers?
I’ve kind of stopped having that direct influence since we moved. It’s been amazing. I’ve left all my books and I’m not beholden to the pressure of all these amazing great artists. I’ve stopped consciously looking at things because I just see so much now that I don’t feel the need to pursue that anymore. But in the past I definitely had artist and designer that I’m sure are woven into everything I do.

Do you think that you will stay in LA for a while?
I think we probably thought we would be thinking of going home by now when we initially moved. We didn’t bring anything because we thought maybe we’d be here a year maybe two. But I think every month that goes by we find ourselves less and less inclined to go home. There are a lot of things we miss. Especially now that it hot we’re missing the beaches, the clean air and clean water and parks.

So the LA beaches aren’t good?
No, they’re horrible. I think I’ve been in the water once since we moved here, it was about two years ago and we said never again. Freezing cold and murky, there’s no waves. I think we’re just spoilt with Sydney beaches.

It would be really hard to pass up the freedom of working here; the manufacturers and suppliers. Everybody here wants to help you, and wants to do business.

Do you have to produce a certain amount of work every year for your gallery?
No, it’s totally fluid. That’s why they don’t have a formal representation set up. We work toward things and they handle commissions. If I produce some stuff and they come down and see it and think they might have a good place for it, we do that. There are no requirements or requisites which is great.

Do you have some dream jobs or clients?
I feel like I’m doing it now. Doing these last paintings which are these big oil paintings, really precise and they take a long, long time, they’re quite arduous. I have to remind myself that this is exactly my dream from the past. Being in my backyard painting with my wife and my kid nearby. I get to get up every morning and paint. It’s a funny thing to be hating this process and then realise that this is the best situation imaginable.

I love the mix. The amount of commercial work I’m doing now is great. Hopefully it can just grow a little bit bigger. The only thing I feel a little bit limited by now is that I still work alone so I can only take on so many things at a time. I’d like to take on a little bit more.

LA Questions
Favourite places?

Honestly we really don’t leave the house. I just love that we have a massive back yard with a vegetable garden and fruit trees. LA was built on suburbia. It’s fundamentally flawed but they got it as right as you could get it. I find it incredible that we can be in the middle of a major city and have a massive block of land.

What would be your perfect day?
Getting up and doing some gardening with the baby. Then doing some painting and making some things and ideally if the beaches were better, going for a swim at some point–teleporting back to Sydney for an afternoon swim.

Jonathan Zawada
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