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Jonathan Zawada

Jonathan Zawada, artist

Being able to see something in the world that didn’t exist before – that you have created – is such a gratifying thing ...

In Short ...

Perth-born and Los Angeles-based artist Jonathan Zawada followed an unconventional path to his current destination as a multi-media visionary. Initially working in the fashion and music industries as a web designer and illustrator, Jonathan found himself slowly gravitating toward the world of art over working in a commercial environment. Ditching the office job for a more creatively fulfilling pursuit has yielded immediate dividends, with Jonathan quickly earning acclaim for this work as well as linking up with a range of world-famous musicians for artistic collaborations. Jonathan will be returning to Australia for an appearance at James Street RESORT, debuting a new work called Blackout in a Glasshouse in addition to participating in a few other events throughout the week. We caught up with Jonathan to talk about the jump from designer to full-time artist, working with the likes of Flume and Baauer and what we can expect from him at James Street RESORT.

Let’s start way back at the beginning. Our childhood masterpieces featured stick figures and smiling suns – would we have been intimidated by your kindergarten creativity?
I did a lot of drawing and spent hours and hours making things when I was little, initially copying my brother who liked to draw big rig trucks and jet planes copied from magazines. This later developed into something of an obsession with the NBA, which resulted in me filling my room with home made Magic Johnson posters rendered in oil pastel or pencil. We didn’t have a whole lot of stuff when I was little so I tended to make a lot of my own games, including board game versions of the games my friends had on Nintendo, like NBA Jam or Super Mario Kart, but I seemed to be aware of copyright even then and would thinly veil them as my own unique creations!

You’ve worked extensively as a graphic designer, but at what point in your life did you start transitioning to the world of art?
I had my first semi-legitimate solo exhibition at Monster Children Gallery in Sydney in 2005. At the time I kept my personal and professional work very far apart and clearly separate but in the time since the two things have blurred together more and more as I’ve oscillated between each. My move to Los Angeles five years ago marked a very conscious turning point where my personal practice has largely taken priority in my thinking and I’ve let go of any notion of anything like working in a traditional design agency and now simply like to focus on making things – whatever category those things might fall under. 

Blackout in a Glasshouse sounds like an incredible piece of installation art – what can you tell us about the work’s concept and intent?
Blackout in a Glasshouse was the result of a lot of thought around the lockout laws in Sydney and Brisbane. I find it to be a very tricky area to navigate as on the one hand something clearly needs to be done about the relationship between drinking and violence in Australia, but on the other hand I don’t think restricting freedoms is necessarily the way to achieve that. In the end, the approach I wanted to take was to acknowledge that a healthy culture has many aspects to it and that there are certain conditions – ones that may be messy or artificially induced, which ultimately lead to unique states that are beautiful. The greenhouse acts as nightlife in microcosm and flowers drinking tonic water and performing these unexpected acts of beauty under black light are a parallel for that human experience. There is a risk that by focusing on the negatives we remove conditions which facilitate positives. The glasshouse also serves a secondary function as it is shelter for a very fragile set of circumstances that lead to beauty, but also in a subtly changed state can be something totally sterile, micromanaged and devoid of wild energy.

What else can people expect from you throughout James Street RESORT?
I’m really looking forward to taking part in a panel discussion with Luke and Anna of Romance Was Born on Friday October 14. I’ve had the pleasure of working with them over the years but never had the opportunity to really talk about it so it’ll be nice to hear more about their practice. I’m also having a Q&A with Mitchell Oakley Smith about the Blackout in a Glasshouse project on the Thursday evening and am looking forward to attending other events on the schedule like the Gail Sorronda show, which will feature the incredible accessories made by very old and dear friends Lyn and Tony. 

What ideas do you particularly enjoy exploring through your artistic practice?
The thing I love the most is learning new things – in particular learning new methods of production or creation. Thinking about things can be satisfying but making them is challenging – working my way through those challenges takes me out of my head in a way that nothing else does. Being able to see something in the world that didn’t exist before – that you have created – is in and of itself such a gratifying thing I think, because it is a marker that you have changed from the time before that thing existed to the time after. 

You’ve also created work in collaboration with a couple of notable musicians – how do those relationships come about?
Generally my projects with musicians start in the pretty pragmatic way of a manager or record label sending me an e-mail about an upcoming release. In the best scenarios this then progresses quickly into me getting to spend time talking with the musician about their work. In particularly enjoyable circumstances – as with recent projects with Flume, Mark Pritchard, Baauer and older projects with The Presets – the artwork would develop alongside the music itself so the process would involve a fair degree of back and forth and sharing of ideas, lots of visits to studios and listening to songs in their early stages. Album covers are marketing but the best album covers happen when you completely forget that fact, I think.

Are you given free reign to create in these projects or do you work closely with the musicians to contribute to their vision?
I’m never given completely free reign (which is probably a good thing). Normally the process involves a fairly long period of close interaction with the musician, not necessarily one which involves directly talking about the work but rather one where we’re both interacting in order to get on the same page. Hopefully by the time I sit down to work on specific cover ideas my head is in the same place as theirs and I have a genuine understanding of where they’re coming from creatively with the music.

What are you currently finding inspiring?
I’ve been on a bit of a bender with flowers for the past few years and they seem to be continuously inspiring – in particular recently looking at how certain flowers may appear to animals like bees who perceive a different part of the spectrum than humans do. Other than that I just tend to get lead by the materials I’m working with at any given time, recently enamel coated aluminium and different types of stone.

How would you say these inspirations are influencing your current work?
The flowers have manifest themselves pretty strongly in my recent work with Flume, Danny L Harle, and now with the Blackout in a Glasshouse installation – to be honest I’m surprised I haven’t yet grown tired of them! Pursuing different ideas of materials – in particular resolving impossible materials that I can visualise in 3D and real materials that I never knew were possible (like different types of agate and marble) – have prompted me to explore processes like hydrodipping in a collection of furniture and objects I will be presenting later this year in Los Angeles. That interplay between how incredible the real, natural world is and what can be done with it in a virtual environment feels like a well that never goes dry.

James Street RESORT runs from October 12–15, encompassing a range of events incorporating fashion, lifestyle, art and design. You can see Jonathan Zawada’s Blackout in a Glasshouse throughout the duration of James Street RESORT or you can catch Jonathan in person at the RESORT Trailblazers talk on Friday October 14 at 11:00 am. 

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