The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

John Zabawa

John Zabawa

  • artist
  • designer

From being forced to leave art school before graduation, to jumping straight into freelance design with little to no experience, John Zabawa has taken anything but a traditional path. We talked with him recently about what prompted his move from the Midwest to California (he’d lived in Chicago for ten years before landing in LA); the realities of living and creating as a low-income artist; how point of view may be the great differentiator in the age of the ubiquitous image; and why place and space are everything.

You currently live in LA, but also lived in Chicago for a long time. Where did you grow up? And in what ways did your upbringing shape your ideas about art and design? I was born in Colorado. My father is retired army, so he was stationed in South Korea back in the early nineties. And that’s where I “grew up,” until I was in grade school.

We moved to Missouri after that, where I finished high school. I was originally going to study law at a university not too far from where we lived, but I realized at the time that it probably would have been the worst decision I could make. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and who I was. And then I remembered the time this woman from an art school in Chicago visited a class of mine. She had seen some of my sketches, and recommended that I apply. I had never thought about pursuing art, until that moment.

Fast forward a year or two, as I’m sitting there wondering what to do with my life, and I thought of her again. Luckily, I was able to find her business card, and I applied. I ended up moving to Chicago, and tried out a few different art schools. It was difficult, though, because I didn’t have much student aid or financial help from my folks. So I drifted in and out of school, leaving and then coming back at different semesters.

I finally started at Columbia College Chicago, but unfortunately after about three years, I had to drop out. I just couldn’t pay for school anymore. It was a bit of a unique situation, though, because I was also freelancing at the time. So even though I dropped out, I was able to go straight to work. It was pretty difficult for the first few years, as I slowly started to figure out my process. I don’t know if you’re familiar with working as a freelancer?

Yes, totally. I’ve been a full-time freelancer for a long time now. It’s tough!

It is. Because I was kind of forced to drop out and go straight into freelancing, it shaped my work ethic in a lot of ways. I had to buckle down right away, and get really serious. And I had to figure out how to navigate wearing more than a few different hats, in terms of client communications, project management, and all the other stuff before you can even get to designing. (laughing)

Even so, being thrown into something in that way is still my greatest recommendation for any designer or artist. School is a tool and a resource, but it’s not necessarily going to prepare you as much as you may think it will. Luckily, my parents have owned businesses, and I think that also helped inform my entrepreneurial spirit.

So Many People by John Zabawa
“So Many People,” John’s 2018 solo exhibition; photo by Matt Allen
So Many People by John Zabawa
“So Many People,” John’s 2018 solo exhibition; photo by Cody Bralts

“Because I was kind of forced to drop out [of school] and go straight into freelancing, it shaped my work ethic in a lot of ways. I had to figure out how to navigate wearing more than a few different hats…client communications, project management, and all the other stuff before you can even get to designing.”

So you continued to live in Chicago after leaving Columbia College? Before coming to LA, I lived in Chicago for 10 years. It was a tough time; I feel like I’ve been starving for at least the last nine. And when I say that, I mean it was a real worst-case scenario.

In my last year there, I was lucky to be hired at one of the biggest ad agencies in Chicago as a junior designer. My friend Jarred Eberhardt, the creative director who hired me, singlehandedly changed my entire life. In many ways, I owe everything to him. I was legitimately starving, and then all of a sudden I had a salary, and everything completely changed.

It really shifted how I experienced the city, too. Being low income, you really can’t do much. Just being able to pay my bills opened everything up. And I was also able to acquire a studio, which kicked things off as far as pursuing my personal work more seriously.

How long were you at the agency job? I hated it for about a year, and then I had to quit. (laughing) It was just becoming too much. I personally feel that advertising doesn’t cater to awesome design. It’s fast. It’s mega. And it’s vague. Anything that becomes that big, stands to lose some amount of quality. And it’s also often a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen sort of scenario, you know? So, I just had to get the hell out of there.

It’s odd, though, because when I was there I hated it so much. But now, I can see how that experience did shape me in some valuable ways. The whole reason I wanted to take that job to begin with—besides the money—was to learn more about how global brands work, and how to compete at the highest level. Not to mention understanding how to pitch new business. And it also helped me learn how to be a lot more disciplined.

A lot of designers and artists think things will be great if they just know how to design really well. But because of that experience, I now know that’s only a small fraction of how design works. It’s also about understanding process, business, finances, operations, and scheduling.

John Zabawa

“Before coming to LA, I lived in Chicago for 10 years. It was a tough time; I feel like I’ve been starving for at least the last nine. And when I say that, I mean it was a real worst-case scenario.”

Did leaving the agency prompt your move from Chicago to LA? Yeah, I moved to LA about five months ago, after quitting the agency job. I had gotten some work collaborating with Jay and Allison Carroll on branding and in-room artwork for their new hotel in Santa Fe. Jay introduced me to Atelier Ace, here in LA. One thing led to another, and I ended up getting a full-time job there, which is where I’m at now. On the side, I’m still doing my own personal work and some freelance stuff.

The whole point of moving out to LA, though, wasn’t to slow down. I came out here because I wanted to try to take things to the next level, and to push myself further. So far, it’s been good. I can’t say LA is perfect for me, but it’s definitely a change of pace. I’m from the city. And sometimes, I really miss the grit, which I think adds to my visual perspective in a different way.

Not to say that LA doesn’t have that, but I do feel myself changing a bit since coming here. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot the last few months; how your identity is shaped by your location. To move away from Chicago, a place where I had built a routine based on having a real the lay of the land, and then abruptly find myself in a place I’ve only visited once, is pretty eye opening. I’m learning things about myself that I hadn’t expected.

I can only imagine how jarring it is to acclimate your personal life and work to a completely different culture. I want know more about that. But first, I want to go back to your freelance days, and how you were so suddenly thrown into that world as a college-age kid, without much structure or preparation. In what ways did that whole experience inform what, and how, you make work now? Failure is everything. I don’t think you can succeed if you’re not also willing to fail—that’s just a part of exploration. Let’s face it, design isn’t even a real thing. It’s not tangible. The tangible results of design are called “products,” and “deliverables,” and “collateral”. But design, to me, is all about thinking. And what led to me being able to understand that concept, was being thrown into things like I was. It puts things into perspective, and helps you understand not only how design actually works, but also the real value of a dollar.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend freelancing for everyone. It’s insanely stressful, and a lot of people just aren’t cut out for it. Being a risk taker is one way of doing things, but it’s not the only way. Playing it safe can also be a good thing. There are times in life where slowing down, and collecting your thoughts, is necessary. But I do think the general spirit of design is about constantly pushing yourself in some way. You should be open to mistakes, and to failure. Because if you aren’t, you’re probably not there yet. You’re not pushing the work to the furthest place it could go.

“Everybody uses the same tools, you know? We use paint, brushes, canvas, graphite. So what’s the differentiator? You could say style, sure, but I think it’s also about point of view.”

Materials in Rhythm by John Zabawa
“Materials in Rhythm,” 2018
Silver Lake Study by John Zabawa
“Silver Lake Study,” 2018

In what ways do you allow risk and failure into your own daily practice? It confuses me when I see designers presenting found images as a part of a concept. When you only search online, you’re only going to find ideas and inspiration around what’s already been done. So while it’s not really risk taking, per se, I try to be very particular about what I look at for inspiration, and where I’m going to look for it.

We’re living in the age of the ubiquitous image, so there really is this sense of homogeneity in the digital world. On that note, I see so much of your artwork pop up as “inspo” on other people’s social media accounts. How do you feel about social media as a platform for what you make? That’s the big one, right? It’s where we’re at right now in our world. My old boss Kevin McGrady put it best when he said, “Look, it was bound to happen.” And it did. I think social media, especially, feeds this need that people have to connect with each other. Unfortunately, when you open up a gate like that, you’re asking for a flood.

But I don’t necessarily think of it as a good thing, or bad thing. It just is what it is. There are some real positives to social media, and there are also some dangerous—and scary—aspects of it. When you put yourself out there, you open yourself up to criticism, which can sometimes break your spirit. But you’re also allowing people to come in and give praise or helpful feedback. Through social media, you’re also able to see how far an image can go, and how it’s associated with other people’s ideas and visions. It’s really strange to see the work show up on someone’s blog, or in association with a company’s brand because they see it as fitting their aesthetic. It’s interesting in that sense to see how “inspiration” works.

But in the context of creation, inspiration is a huge and serious consideration. If you look at some of my work, and maybe the work of some others who came before me—I won’t name any names—it’s more about a difference in perspective than anything else. Everybody uses the same tools, you know? We use paint, brushes, canvas, graphite. So what’s the differentiator? You could say style, sure, but I think it’s also about point of view. It’s taking a subject, and either putting it under a macro lens or a micro lens—seeing it more closely, or in a different way. I think the spirit of the new and original idea can come out of that, too.

When I see work online that looks really similar to something I’ve created, my first reaction is, “That’s great! Keep going.” I know artists and designers who get really offended by that, as if it’s going to take the spotlight off of them, and they won’t be able to shine, too. But if you’re that insecure, there are much bigger questions you probably need to ask yourself.

I personally believe it’s how things are supposed to work with art, so I don’t take offense. It’s not stealing; no one owns a form, or a color. Yves Klein wasn’t the only person to have ever thought about blue in that way; he was just one of the first to put it under such a spotlight. There’s no “I” in art. And there’s no edge to it. So how do you define or measure something that’s interpretive and has no boundaries? There has to be a level of selflessness in it. Unfortunately with some artists, it’s just about ego. But I don’t think ego makes for a strong artist. Allowing humility in, does.

Painting for El Rey Court by John Zabawa
Painting for El Rey Court in Santa Fe, NM, 2018

“…one of the biggest problems is that you’re often designing for things you’ve never seen. But with this project, I was able to work on the property. By physically being in that space, in a different state, with different air and light, I was able to gather insights that you can’t gather from looking at photographs alone.”

I love that you brought that up, because I not only agree, but I think it’s such a timely discussion. When social media becomes the primary platform for showing one’s work, then you sort of cease to be a fine artist in many ways, and are instead more of a brand than anything else. Yes. Totally.

I wonder if the ego you described, and the sense of protectiveness over one’s artistic vision that goes along with it, stems from that? There’s a long and rich history of artists swapping ideas and sharing techniques, otherwise. And it only seems like it’s become an issue more recently. We’ve gotten so consumed with the idea of people stealing each other’s “intellectual property,” which is a commercial term, not really an artistic term. I hadn’t really thought of it in that way. In this day and age, you do have to behave more like a brand than an artist. And that’s really troubling. It ruins the core essence of beautiful creation. I totally get having to make a dollar from your art, but capitalism tarnishes the spirit of things. And I absolutely hate that.

I have always considered myself to be a fly on the wall. That’s why even to this day, it’s shocked me that I’ve even been able to build a following on social media. There was one point where I was interested in curating things more, but then I saw how much of a pain in the ass it was for the people I knew who had a much larger following. And I could also see how sensitive they were becoming: staying up late at night, losing sleep, ruining their diet.

Being completely attached to their devices. Yeah. It’s like they’d gone completely mental. And I don’t believe in that. I’d rather be the fly on the wall, and just make something, and put it out there, and then walk away. Of course, I’m curious about the reaction it will receive. But ultimately, that’s the game. It’s kind of what you sign up for when you decide to do that. So in that sense, I try not to care. Let people rip it apart, or whatever they’re going to do. That doesn’t mean that feedback doesn’t sometimes bum me out. I’ve gotten some negative reactions in the past, but I also know I have to be open to that sort of thing.

John Zabawa
John at McManus & Morgan, his favorite paper shop in LA
John Zabawa
John Zabawa

“When I see work online that looks really similar to something I’ve created, my first reaction is, ‘That’s great! Keep going.’ I know artists and designers who get really offended by that, as if it’s going to take the spotlight off of them, and they won’t be able to shine, too. But if you’re that insecure, there are much bigger questions you probably need to ask yourself.”

John Zabawa

The fly on the wall metaphor is interesting. I wonder how that approach ties in with your ideas around ownership in art. You make something, you put it out into the world, and in so many ways it then belongs to the viewer. It ceases to be yours. And out of your possession, it also takes on another life. Because the viewer is ascribing their own meaning and experience to it. Andy Warhol once said something along the lines of, “Let other people decide if it’s good or bad. And while they’re talking about it, just keep making more artwork.” And it’s so true. You don’t really own the work once you’ve made it and put it out there. So, just keep making more of it.

He was sort of the master when it came to that—even if he got a lot of flack for it. There’s this song called “The Artist,” by Peter Sarstedt, and when I listen to it, I think of Warhol. One of the lyrics goes something like, “He painted a painting, and he said you have to stand on your head in order to get the full effect, and so everybody stands on their heads”. The artist’s role in society is a little like that.

Since you brought up a particular song, I have to ask: when you need to feel turned on to make new work, where do you find yourself looking for inspiration? You mentioned earlier that you try not to look online, at least at first. It’s difficult, because I’d like to be as free flowing as possible. Ideally, the first thing I’d do is walk outside—to get a sense of the bigger picture, and a breath of fresh air in its most literal sense. But when it comes to finding inspiration in general, I purposefully try to find it in the most unique places. Like looking more closely at a shadow, or an old receipt on the floor, or old album covers. That sort of thing. But, it does also sometimes come from the internet.

Speaking of walking outside: you don’t currently have a studio, but you’ve been spending a lot of time at the beach. I’m curious what role place and space—in LA, along the Pacific Coast, or anywhere else in the world—play in your work? That’s actually the biggest thing on my mind lately. Right before I left Chicago, I decided I wanted to try to have a solo exhibition. I felt like I couldn’t leave Chicago until I had done something. So in my tenth year there, I was able to have that show. That was on a Friday, and I broke it down on Sunday, and then flew straight to Santa Fe for the hotel job I mentioned, and then moved to LA a few weeks later.

I had this gigantic space in the Flat Iron building, which in my mind was the best studio in Chicago. Having a space like that allowed my ideas to open up, grow larger, and achieve scale. So, I had all of that, and then I just left. Right when I felt as if the iron was hot, I picked myself up and went. To move to a more expensive city, where I didn’t know anyone. To live in a small room, with no studio. And all of that really put things into perspective. It makes me a little salty now, when I think about it. I wonder sometimes if I should have stayed.

But I also think leaving forced me to get out of my comfort zone. Since I don’t have a space here to create the larger-scale work I’d like to be making, I’ve been working on a much smaller scale. The thought upsets me, to be perfectly honest. But I’ve only been here for five months, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to acquire a studio here sometime soon. All of that to say, I think space is everything.

“In this day and age, you do have to behave more like a brand than an artist. And that’s really troubling. It ruins the core essence of beautiful creation.”

Lucille Furs LP cover by John Zabawa
Original artwork and design for the Lucille Furs Debut LP, Treehouse Records, 2017

Not only space as it relates to the physical world, but as you mentioned earlier, to the inner world. I see a pretty tangible figure-ground reversal in a lot of your work, and I wonder if you can speak to the idea of negative space in the compositions you make, and how that relates to your ideas around physical space vs. space as a state of mind. That’s a really good question. I’ve been pursuing fine arts my entire life, and have only been designing for the later half of it. Design is about simplifying, but it’s also about getting to the root of a problem. Trying to understand exactly what needs to be done, and how to create a better product, to create a better experience, to make things easier to use. And it’s also about cutting out all of the fluff to get straight to the core. Through the act of design, my mind has started to think and work more along those lines.

Last year, I was introduced to the Japanese concept of ma. Are you familiar with it?

Very familiar. It’s such a beautiful concept. The example that completely changed things for me was the Japanese flag. You’d typically think the whole point of the design is the red sun, but that’s not the case. The philosophy of ma states that it’s the white space around the red sun. When I heard that, a bomb went off in my head.

In my efforts to try to understand the concept on an even larger scale, I’ve been looking at relationships and composition and how the eye moves. It’s something I’ll be trying to understand for a very long time. But, it’s where I’d like to go when it comes to understanding the notion of space.

John Zabawa
John Zabawa
John showing off some work samples

“The positive thing about not having that space, is that all of this creative energy has been building up, and at some point it’s got to give. In a way, it’s helping me focus in on exactly what I want to do once I finally have the space to do it.”

John Zabawa
John Zabawa

Even just saying you feel like you might never quite figure it out makes so much sense in terms of Japanese aesthetics and philosophy. There is no mastery, so to speak. The revelation comes while searching and doing, rather than through mastery itself. It’s interesting you mention that, because I always say to myself, and to my friends, “The way of the artist is to understand first that you’re never a master, but you’re always a student.”

Yes. That’s such great advice. It’s so uninteresting as an artist to feel as if you already know all the answers. The minute you think you’re a master, you’ve just jumped off into the deep end, and you’re never coming back.

I want to go back for a minute to the gig you took in Santa Fe at El Rey Court, right before moving to LA. What do you enjoy about collaborating with other artists and visionaries like the Carrolls, vs. working solo? On the flip side, is there anything about the process of collaborating that you find challenging to navigate? Before you ever even dive into the work, it’s about the people; who you work with, and how they behave. And Allison and Jay are amazing people. They’re salt of the earth, and also so creative and successful in all of their projects. It was such an awesome opportunity to get to work with them. Jay discovered me online, and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating with them on some design and artwork for the hotel. He had some rough ideas, and I had some as well, and we were able to merge the two through this project.

It was my first real hospitality project where I led the design, so one of the things I was most concerned about was whether or not it would resonate with the people of that place. How are people in Santa Fe going to react? And more importantly: are the people who work in the space going to like it, or not? I think one of the biggest problems in design is that you’re often designing for things you’ve never seen. But with this project, I was able to work on the property. By physically being in that space, in a different state, with different air and light, I was able to gather insights that you can’t gather from looking at photographs alone. Luckily, a lot of people seem to be digging it.

In terms of collaborations, like this project, Jay gave me creative freedom. And I think that’s the best thing you can do for an artist, rather than saying, “We want to hire you for your work, but we want you to use these colors, and these motifs.” The minute someone talks like that, I have to decline. Which doesn’t mean I’m not open to communicating about merging ideas that will work in service of the space. But as far as straight-up commissions go, I don’t take them. I’ve had people email me, asking if I’d paint something inspired by their honeymoon in the Bahamas. And I think, I don’t even know these people! And I’ve never been to the Bahamas! No fucking way.

Motifs by John Zabawa
“Motifs,” 2018

“There’s no ‘I’ in art. And there’s no edge to it. So how do you define or measure something that’s interpretive and has no boundaries? There has to be a level of selflessness in it. Unfortunately with some artists, it’s just about ego. But I don’t think ego makes for a strong artist. Allowing humility in, does.”

That’s such a weirdly intimate request from a complete stranger. I know! I’m not going to paint or illustrate something to a set of criteria like that. Design is different. But with artwork, it’s a “you’ll get what you get” type deal.

I think it’s so important to stand up for your work, and to stand up for the thing you do best. The moment people try to penetrate that with their own ideas, it ceases to be your artwork.

Do you feel creatively satisfied, right now? At the moment I do feel somewhat creatively satisfied. I’m in the right place, but I’m eager to spend more time painting, and on other projects I’ve been planning. It’s going to take time to get situated in this new environment, but I believe I’ll be able to focus on bigger pictures in the near future.

What’s next for you? In the next year or so, I really want to start my own studio, where I’ll make work by hand, work with brands, and run a team. More immediately, I’m working on my next show, which will happen sometime next spring or summer.

I have a plethora of ideas on the back burner that I haven’t been able to get to. I’m working on a book project, and have interest in trying to create some furniture over the next few months. Which is why the end goal is to start my own studio, where I can execute on all of those ideas and do things my own way.

Not having the right space can be so frustrating. At least you have so many ideas brewing, which are just on the verge of being realized. That’s an exciting place to be. It is. The positive thing about not having that space, is that all of this creative energy has been building up, and at some point it’s got to give. In a way, it’s helping me focus in on exactly what I want to do once I finally have the space to do it. interview close

“I think it’s so important to stand up for your work, and to stand up for the thing you do best. The moment people try to penetrate that with their own ideas, it ceases to be your artwork.”

John Zabawa
John Zabawa
John Zabawa
John Zabawa