words by Melissa Roels
John Zabawa is an artist and designer living in Chicago, Illinois. His painting practice has been heavily influenced by color theory and the Japanese philosophy of Ma, or negative space. In his studio located within the iconic Flat Iron Arts building, we talked about his upcoming solo show, So Many People, and how the idea of freedom affects the creative process.
Melissa Roels: What does freedom mean to you? Have our current politics environment, sometimes leading to the feeling of our freedoms being taken away affected your most recent work?
John Zabawa: Freedom is different for everybody but in a general sense. I think freedom for me is being able to, in regards to the work that I make, do the things that I want to do my way. What’s been happening in the last year has definitely contributed to the pressure and tension of my need to make more work. I’ve been becoming more purposeful in that I want to make things to help others. The way I make sense of it all is having that outlet and ability to paint and create something. I don’t think they heal anything, but they help things make a little more sense. That is not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. [My] feelings don’t change after I finish painting something. Maybe I can deal with a little more in some ways. When you’re painting you just think a lot, especially when you’re alone.
MR: Do you feel free when you’re painting?
JZ: Absolutely, there is nothing like that. I suppose being in transit or riding the train or bus can be something like that - to be free when you’re in motion. But I feel the most free when I’m painting as opposed to when I’m designing.
MR: The forms in your paintings seem to strongly reference to iconic artists in the modern canon, Picasso and Matisse in particular come to mind. Has your style of work been inspired by modernism?
JZ: Absolutely, I would say that if anyone can see my work and think it’s inspired by somebody else than they are probably right. I’m totally inspired with Matisse and Picasso but I don’t agree or like all the work they’ve done. There are lots of other people who are nowhere near being famous that are of even more prolific inspiration to me, like friends.
MR: What other artists inspire you?
JZ: When I feel like I want to be grittier, or use the term vaguely dirty, grimy or loose, Tim Presley of White Fence in San Francisco - his music too. I mean there is a long list, I would definitely say David Bowie is one of them.
MR: How does David Bowie inspire you?
JZ: I mean who isn’t inspired by David Bowie? How can you be an artist and not be at all become inspired by him, his work, and his legacy? Not only his contribution but more so his fierceness to make new things and challenge people. I think every artist would like to get to a point within themselves where they finally want to challenge their audiences. Not in an aggressive or emotional way, just push their boundaries. He’s definitely on the top of the list of people I think who do that.
MR: So you create album artwork for bands also, is combining art and music something you’ve always enjoyed?
JZ: Music is a huge part of my life. I try to make my own music and what not. I would say the first thing that got me into design and eventually into the arts was album artwork and posters. It’s like that for a lot of artists and designers. It’s not a brand, it’s not a company so you’re truly able to do whatever you really want. A band is aware you should let the artist just do what they want to do because it’s a collaboration.
MR: Do you want to talk about how music has influenced the show you’re working on right now?
JZ: I’ve been personally wanting to pursue the arts as a full time job for the last 7-8 months. In that timeframe, I decided that I’m just going to start doing this as much as I possibly can and try to get better. At my house I have a tape recorder and a cassette player and I have a few tapes from friends and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie. It’s not even like I want to listen to this record every time I’m working it’s just right there and I’m lazy. That album just became a thing when I was about to start I would put the tape in and just get to it.
The first song, it’s not even my favorite song on the record either, on side A is ‘Five Years’. But just after the second verse, there is this part where he says the lines “I never thought I would meet so many people”. You can hear this breath from [David Bowie] when he says it. It’s this sigh and you feel this weight. It’s really humbling to know that even somebody like David Bowie can still feel overwhelmed like a normal person. Something about that movement in the song is where the feeling came from for wanting to make the upcoming show.
I don’t know that much about David Bowie.
MR: I mean you don’t have to in order to draw significant inspiration from him.
JZ: I don’t know his whole life, I don’t know all his records, I don’t know every A side and B side. I do know the work I’ve listened to is just phenomenal.
MR: I thought it was interesting you brought him up as someone who wants to challenge his audience. That is inspiring, to look up to an artist that has gotten to a point where no longer they have to worry about who their audience is or whether the audience will be receptive but rather asks, “How can I challenge you to move beyond your normal comfort zone.”
JZ: I imagine as a talented and great performer you reach that certain point, which I realize I’m super far away from, of achieving something that can mean a great deal to society. There lies a level of power that also serves branding, logos, and design, and even artwork. To know you have that power, to know people are going to come to the show, it’s up to you whether you choose to push it or keep doing the same thing. Like when Bob Dylan started playing electric guitars at his shows.
MR: So would you say that type of power for you relates to creative freedom?
JZ: Yeah, absolutely. Freedom to the scale of how much of your creativity will impact others.
MR: You seem to have a pretty personal relationship with each painting. Can you explain how your paintings provide transformation for you or for the viewer?
JZ: That’s a huge thing that I’ve been thinking about for the last fucking four months. I’m glad you asked that because I haven’t been able to think about it really or understand it. I don’t make paintings for you and I really don’t care. Whether you like them or you want to change or become inspired. It doesn’t really mean anything to me. Not in a bad way, I care about people. How it changes you is not my focus.
I’m hoping to create a connection with the viewer for the show because this is my first time putting it out there on display for people to see. Maybe I am interested in seeing how people react to it. Like the installation piece I want to create where the viewer will stand in sand. It’s not that I don’t want to connect with you. But with my artwork I don’t need that connection as an inspiration. I don’t need the artwork to be the thing that connects us together.
MR: A lot of your work has debuted online, So Many People will be the first show where people will need to come into your studio to view the work. Do you find social media has negatively or positively affected your life, work?
JZ: It has affected it positively because social media does give you a platform. Having people interested in your work is a great feeling. It’s wonderful in the sense that people are reacting to the work in a positive way by sharing it. That is what is cool on social media - to see how far something can go. I think art has a level of competition to it in a weird way. I like to know when I wake up that a ton of work has been made while I was sleeping. When I look at the artists I follow, I get excited because I’m like “oh cool, people are making things today”.
The negative impact that social media has is that it’s a complete mind-fuck. How do you make sense of it all? There is a sense of curation…you show only what you want to show. But social media was bound to happen. That’s what humans are about is connection and reaching other humans.
MR: How long does it take to create a piece? Can you explain your creative process?
JZ: I would say however long it takes to create a piece will forever be unknown. I know my ways, I know who I am, I know my process and how I wake up and get to it. Coming up with the idea takes my whole life up until the point of creating it. The actual execution isn’t that long. That’s why I like painting with acrylics. I feel like there is some moral artist integrity to painting with oil because all the old masters have done it this way. As far as a creative process is concerned I like acrylic, I like seeing the creative process come to life right now. That’s why I make so much, whether it’s good or bad, just because I like seeing the work produced now. If I wake up and I have an idea, I want to make it this day and have it framed, done, and on my wall at night. To tell you how long it takes to paint a piece, I’ve been trying to paint things with as few colors as possible. It’s intentionally made that way so it doesn’t take very long.
MR: Your paintings are subdued in tone but the color choice is always quite bold. Can you tell me about your process of choosing and creating a painting’s colors?
JZ: How I value my work is not necessarily the subject matter or the forms, it is color and composition. I really truly believe that color has to be observed. You have to have an eye for it but it has some sort of mechanical process to it when you understand the color wheel, there is a true science to it. If you understand just a little about color theory and science it can change the way you see life. I think my mother being a painter, being around art making colors and seeing color palettes and actual tubes of color definitely contributed to that.
I’ve been doing design for the last 7 years. It’s a good and a bad thing. It’s the design side of my brain that wants to build a color palette because I do branding and then I have another part of my brain that wants to be sporadic with color choices. It’s doing design that has contributed to my understanding of color relationships.
MR: Where do you hope to grow? What aspirations do you have in 2018?
JZ: I would like to get closer to having a full functioning studio. That’s the biggest goal. It’s not that I want to make more art I just want to have more room. I hope to grow by having a bigger space. Artistically I’d say it’s back to the whole creative freedom thing. I hope to grow in the sense that I’ll be able to deal with things better by painting them. It’s like jazz music if you think about it. You have to feel some pain. Or like blues music. It’s kind of fake if you’re not.
MR: When are you happiest?
JZ: I’m happiest when I make something and I see someone react to it in a great way. It’s an indescribable feeling to have someone look at your soul and smile. It sounds so cheesy but the happiest thing is when people can accept the things you make. I’m content when I’m painting and have a record on. I feel like me, I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be. I’m happy when I’m eating fettuccine alfredo. That’s the picture I want painted of me.