‘Zawada’ is a name that’s been following me ever since I got set up with my first official work email account.
Wherever I go, it’s all, “well when Zawada did this for us,” like I should automatically know what that means and be able to take something away from it. I thought that Zawada was an African design firm. Because of the name and the array of services it covered—anything from building websites, designing surfing magazines, music videos, etc. Surely this was the work of a collective. Turns out Jonathan Zawada is a man from Perth, a man highly talented in the visual arts, thus the mysterious lauding of his name around creative circles. This year, Jonathan’s the man charged with designing arguably the most significant outwards facing, literally, element of Vivid Sydney: the projection on the Opera House. Vivid reached out for us to lend coverage to this event. Personally, however, the appeal was finding out more about this name that I’d heard simultaneously so much, and so little, about.
When I finally got hold of Mr Zawada on the landline of his new(ish) Byron Bay home—after a Seinfeld style mix up with a wrong number and one very confused gentleman—he’d just returned from Sydney where he’d seen his latest endeavour, Metamathemagical, projected on the surface of one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks. “I had to do some testing the week before,” Jonathan tells me of the process that involved him sitting with the projection team across from the Opera House on a laptop in the early hours of the morning tweaking the colours of his creation. “It was such a straightforward process with the projections team,” he tells me. “2am on one little laptop, plugged into the projector. It felt like being in my studio projecting, moving the cursor around… but it was the Opera House.”
My confusion as to exactly what constituted a Zawada, it turns out, was warranted. Jonathan has no formal training, and pretty much taught himself to do all of the modern things that someone visually creative can do to earn a crust: graphic design, illustration obviously, coding, website design, fashion design. It’s no wonder his past projects are dotted throughout the Sydney “creative” world. As Jonathan tells me, this DIY approach stemmed from his formative years as an only child. Moving from Perth when he was 10 to Melbourne and eventually Sydney, Jonathan didn’t have access to the flash toys that many of his contemporaries did. So he made his own. “I always wanted video games and stuff but I used to make my own board game versions of Mario Kart,” he explains. “Now I think back, it was an amazing time for me to develop a lot of skills. At the time I was just filling time and making my room look nicer.”
By the time he graduated from high school Jonathan was basically running his own business, doing bits of design and animation for local businesses. Further study seemed unnecessary, and soon he got snapped up by a web design co., one who had an office directly next door to a little design firm set up by the George and Steve Gorrow, of later Tsubi, Insight 51 and plenty others fame. By osmosis, Jonathan started tinkering on projects with the Tsubi gang, which led to him working with Modular Records and plenty of others. “It was a really lovely time,” Jonathan says. “Everybody helped each other out. Between Modular and Tsubi; they were doing so much and I got the opportunity to work on lots of amazing projects.”
Then came the LA years. When the golden noughties age of creativity in Sydney petered out, Jonathan and his family moved to Los Angles with the goal of spending more time on his personal projects, and less on commercial work. Going into this period, Jonathan tells me that he tried his utmost to keep his personal work separate from his commercial side, the thinking being that if he was indulging his own creativity, then he was working for himself rather than his clients’ interests. The LA stint relaxed him however, presumably because of the success he had with his personal projects, and now he takes a more laissez-faire approach. “When I moved to LA I took time off commercial work, and then when I came back I realised that I didn’t need to restrict myself,” Jonathan tells me. “I should just be enjoying making things whatever form it took, rather than trying to hold myself back.”
Which leads us rather neatly back to the Opera House, a blend of commercial/personal work if ever there was. Not to mention that having your art projected onto the Opera House is pretty much as big as gigs get for a visual artist. “It’s a funny one because it’s physically huge and the audience is massive,” Jonathan tells me. “It’s a huge thing to have happen.” The inspiration for Metamathemagical came from the 10 year anniversary of Vivid and Zawada ruminating on the broader meaning of the festival, creativity, and how that all tied together with his interpretation of Australia. “The idea was making a piece about the creative act as an individual, but also the grand cosmic creative act,” Jonathan explains. “How the planet formed, animals evolved, and I wanted to create a piece that carried those threads through it. So it spoke to Vivid on an individual and broader aspect, time space and all that… without it being too hippy,” he laughs. As for what’s next in the illustrious, if slightly random, career of Jonathan Zawada, some much deserved time off is the call, and a Vivid revisit to really drink it all in as a consumer. “My wife and I are going to come down and see it as spectators,” Jonathan tells me. “I’ve barely even seen it really, hopefully then it will feel more real. It feels surreal. It doesn’t feel like it’s mine. ”