always a student, never a master
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ZABAWA
by Jessica Antony
Meet John Zabawa: artist, designer, constant seeker of inspiration. He’s the California-based designer behind three new collections for EQ3: the Coronado rugs and throws, the Air vases, and the Seeker pillows. We spoke with him about his art practise, his design work, his life as a freelancer, and how he approaches the notion of ownership when it comes to sharing creative work in nebulous online spaces.
FREELANCING ISN’T FOR THE FAINT AT HEART
John was born in Colorado, but with a father in the US Army he moved around a lot in his childhood – including some time spent in South Korea. He eventually settled in Chicago, where he enrolled in Columbia College after a recruiter from the school saw his sketches and encouraged him to apply. After three years and mounting financial pressure, he was forced to leave school and dive headfirst into freelance life. He was fortunate enough to know some people in Chicago looking for design work, which organically led to more and more contracts.
At the same time, he continued his education on his own terms: “I kept forcing myself to learn new design things, focusing on illustration, drawing, branding, and packaging.” John found full-time work with an ad agency, but, unfulfilled by the advertising world, he ultimately decided to leave that position after a year and make the move to Los Angeles. Before he left Chicago, he held his first solo exhibition, So Many People, inspired by “his misinterpretation of a David Bowie lyric, ‘I never thought I would meet so many people’ and the unexpectedness in the way life unfolds.”
John’s practice spans both the design and art worlds. He creates both branding and graphic design work for clients, and continues to grow his own artwork, which includes minimalist ink drawings and abstract acrylic paintings on canvas.
A DIFFERENCE IN APPROACH
While John’s design and artwork are “just different ways of making things,” they are also distinct in terms of his approach. “To me, art is very interpretive,” John said. “It’s an ‘anything goes’ type of world.” Approaching design work for clients, however, involves entering an entirely different mindset. “Whenever I’m going into branding mode, I look at strategy and creative hand-in-hand. Who’s our audience? What’s their age? … My mind goes into a more methodical, practical, logical thinking space.”
While John recognizes the benefit of his background in advertising, he warns that thinking too much in terms of marketing strategy isn’t always helpful – “I think that can limit creativity.” When it comes to art, however, he says, “I try best as I can to literally shut off all those things in my head. There’s no strings attached, I don’t have to think about consumer databases and marking touchpoints and targeting … it’s really refreshing.”
It’s the combination of all the work that John does – both graphic design and artwork – that makes it so rewarding. “The best projects are projects that allow everyone involved … to learn something about yourself or the world, or discover a curiosity, or find some new interest in something.”
There’s an opportunity to uncover inspiration or growth in all types of projects, but finding that growth is key: “If you didn’t gain any life experience, if you didn’t gain any interest, if it didn’t spark any new inspirations or creative ideas, then that’s not work, that’s labour.” Being a designer and freelancer allows John to try new things, and it’s in this varied experience that he’s able to develop as an artist and designer.
ART IS INHERENTLY FREE
Given that online spaces like social media are so intimately tied to artists not only marketing themselves but sharing and, to some extent, seeking inspiration, how an artist draws the line between encouraging those who find inspiration in their work and protecting their work is tricky. Approaching the notion of “ownership” in a space like social media where those lines can be so easily blurred can be complicated. For John, it’s about releasing and letting go and the idea that art is inherently free, a concept central to his practise.
“I don’t think you own anything if you call yourself an artist. It’s a selfless practice to some degree,” he said. “I feel that the role of the artist in society is to comment on and display how culture and people are feeling personally and generationally. If you’re an artist and you share your work, you’re doing a great service to people … there are so many things you can see in your day, so to see artwork is a great thing.” What happens when the lines become blurred between inspiration and duplication?
For John, “it means somebody has found something within your work that has inspired them to pick up a paintbrush and a canvas or a pencil and a paper and attempt to be courageous and make something themselves.” Just like he tries to drop his ego when he’s working on design contracts, the same holds for his artwork: “Nothing you put on the internet belongs to you now, and that should be a refreshing thing. Just release it and move on to the next thing.”
TAKING INSPIRATION FROM YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Working with EQ3 was an opportunity he welcomed and a collaboration that jibed well philosophically: “a lot of things aligned … you really have to make sure that [a company] aligns with your values.” In designing the rugs, throws, pillows, and vases for his new collections, he poured over our current offerings, noting “a lot of monotones, a lot of super cohesive looks – very, very simple, which I really love.”
His approach was then to break the mould entirely: “my idea was to do the exact opposite … something that had colour and bold patterns that isn’t so intricate and a little more fun. Something your child and your uncle and your grandma could all be inspired by.” He also drew inspiration from place – “I had just moved to California and was completely enamoured with the west coast.” The Coronado rugs and throws, for example, were named after the street he lived on in Silver Lake. “I tried to pepper in things that were happening in my personal life that maybe only I would ever know.”
Adding personal elements to his work is a conscious part of John’s process, and he explained that much of his work “is inspired by what I’m surrounded by.” This makes each piece special. “Whenever I look at my collaborations with EQ3, I think of my very first year in California,” he explained. “There’s sentiment to it when you draw from where you are and your surroundings. It becomes deeply personal.”
FOREVER A STUDENT
Working with EQ3 has been exciting, John said, as he’s always been interested in furniture and home goods. “A big passion of mine is furniture design and packaging and that’s what I’m really hoping to do more of in 2020: a lot more dimensional and 3D works with furniture and spaces.” John’s plans for the future also include delving into tile making, something he’s been interested in pursuing for a long time. “This year I plan on making my own tiles and hopefully that will get me [tile] work. You can get what you want if you share those curiosities with people,” John said. “If you just do branding work, nobody is going to hire you to do mural work, even if that’s what you want to do. … I guarantee you will find work if you share what it is you want to do, because I firmly believe the work that you share that you really want to do will be your best work.”
In addition to focusing on specific pursuits, John is always on the lookout for new ways to approach his practise. “I’m constantly trying to research, find inspiration, read, listen to music. It’s a daily thing: to just be immersed in that work-life ethic, constantly trying to find something new. That’s something I’ve always loved about craftsmen — especially in Asia — that you never stop. Every day is sort of the same in some ways, which I love. You’re always going to work at it. That’s a principle that’s always stuck with me: you’re always a student, you never become a master.”
The constant drive to learn, grow, and discover is a double-edged sword: while the pursuit of inspiration and creativity is exciting, it’s also daunting and keeps John perpetually on the hunt for more. “Have you ever heard the expression that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master? Gosh, that haunts me all the time. And I feel like I’ve only put like 20 minutes into that time space. So, whenever I think of that I’m like ‘Oh, no day off, I gotta get back to work.’”