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Morning Rituals: John Zabawa

Photos: Justin Chung

One thing that’s always struck me about John is his devotion to creating art. While painting and visual art have been his primary mediums (in the sense that they’re what he’s built a career around) he’s equally committed to creating music. At the bottom of it is a dedicated pursuit to self-discovery and, ultimately, a quest for truth. 

I feel it’s rare to find people who have this kind of drive and passion for creating, but rarer still to find someone who carries it with such nonchalance; without ego. For John, it’s like a fact. He must create. And he’s not likely to tolerate anything that stands in the way.

We first met John Zabawa back in 2017, when we asked him to help us with a poster for Canyon Coffee’s first birthday. At the time, he was about to leave Chicago to move to Los Angeles. Little did we know we’d go on to become best of friends.

In the time we’ve known him, through countless coffee hangs, dinners, and the odd camping trips, he’s managed to build a life that allows him to focus less on a 9-5 and increasingly on his art. A reality that many aspire to, but few achieve — and something for which I feel very proud of him. 

But to see where John is at now without knowing his story is missing something, because he has carried the traits that brought him to this moment for years. Through it all, his curiosity, his drive, and his passion for art have never wavered, and he has always remained a good friend.

Having long been a source of inspiration for me, I’ve been excited to do a Morning Rituals feature on John for years. We finally made it happen a few weeks ago, with a visit to his home and painting studio in Echo Park — right up the street from Canyon.

We hope you enjoy!
- Casey 

CC: Do you have a morning ritual? And what does a typical day in the studio look like for you?

JZ: It hasn’t changed, it’s pretty consistent. Kristen and I have coffee in bed. It’s our chance to wake up together.

We wake up to a Mr. Coffee. That’s our alarm. It feels like the most vain, luxurious thing we do. Sometimes we wake up to it starting to brew, sometimes it’s already brewed.

That makes me truly American, I guess.

Outside of that, I come downstairs, I brew up a couple shots on my Gemini, and I sit outside and have a cigarette with my coffee. I sit outside in the sun, sip my espresso, smoke my cigarette, look at the day’s tasks, and try to get on.

I’m the kind of coffee drinker where, once I get my cup of coffee, I hold onto that for the whole day. I’m not a multiple coffees a day guy…

What’s the rest of your day look like? A typical day.

As soon as I’m done with my coffee and cigarette, I go into my studio and paint for two hours. I have to paint when I wake up. If I don’t paint when I wake up, no good painting will be done that day. That’s been my process for the last two years.

This is mainly because the morning is the best time for light in my studio. I absolutely need natural light to paint. You can’t really paint in the dark… when it’s a darker day, I’m constantly moving the canvas outside and in.

I’m quoting the wrong artist… it might have been Picasso… “Life is meant to be lived at night.” You’re supposed to work during the day, and live at night. At night time, I don’t want to work. I want to be with friends, go to dinner, or watch a movie.

When you’re young though you work all day and night. Working 'til 11pm.

Where’d you grow up?

I grew up in South Korea, and was there long enough that I still have those memories. I moved to America at the end of elementary school, to Missouri, because my Dad was stationed there. I lived there, in Waynesville, MI, through high school.

Growing up, I didn’t really do art. I only took one art class in high school, and didn’t really care about it. Then I moved to Springfield, MI, to go to school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was thinking about studying law. I wasn’t even thinking about art. But Springfield wasn’t the right fit.

A woman from the Chicago Art Institute came to my community college and gave me her card. When I decided I wanted to leave Springfield, I called her, and within two weeks I had moved up to Chicago and started studying design.

I’m kind of glad I studied design, instead of art. The more I studied design, the more I became aware of art.

Did you always see yourself doing what you’re doing now?

No. I had never thought of being an artist. Frankly, I’m surprised at how much I’ve changed and adapted compared to how I started out. When I was younger, I was quite careless about my path. And, though I’d been making music since I was a teenager, I certainly didn’t care about art.

I was in Chicago for 11 years. About five years into that, I started making visual art.

Do you feel that came about because you studied design?

No, at the time I started making art, I had already been out of school for awhile. I left the Art Institute because I couldn’t continue to afford it, and was working odd jobs. But because of the experience and education I did receive, I was also able to start getting freelance design jobs. 

Those were hard days. Not glamorous in any way. Truly miserable (laughs). 

Of course now, being more successful, I look back on those days with nostalgia. My demeanor was positive on everything. I had nothing to lose. 

Over time, my design practice started doing well. I started getting hit up for more projects by bigger groups. 

How’d you wind up in LA? 

I wound up working in advertising in Chicago. I went through a break up, and felt like I’d accomplished everything I wanted to do there. 

I’m an immigrant. I don’t feel like I’m meant to live anywhere permanently. Chicago was just kind of the next-best idea I had back when I was 18. Ten years went by, there was a wake up call, and through a friend I was able to get a job with a hotel design studio in LA.

And that’s when we met. You made the poster for our one year anniversary, and then again for our two year party. The originals are both hanging at our shop in Echo Park now. 

I remember when we met in person, a month after I moved to LA.

What has Los Angeles brought to your life?

Everything has changed. My whole life. A lot of good things — which is lucky, in this town. I was able to meet and start working with Rosa Park, who featured me in Cereal, and with whom I’ve since started working with in Francis Gallery. I met Justin Chung, I met you guys. I’ve been able to be around and meet other artists. And I was able to meet Kristen.

In summation, it’s made me push my career. LA gives off that competitive pressure to really be good. Because there are so many people adding to the pool of culture, and there are really amazing artists here. I give that to LA. It pushes you to reevaluate, and grow as an artist. When I see amazing art, it pushes me to go home and paint.

A lot of people come here and don’t do well. But that’s all part of learning. LA will push your work. Half the job is trying to figure out how to live here and have a good time. 

You’ve got your studio, right downstairs from your and Kristen’s house. How do you like to keep your spaces? The studio feels so intentional and particular.

When you live in a small space, or have a small studio, you realize how precious every inch is. You need to maximize on all the space you’re using, and you don’t want any dead space. Since my studio is in a small house, rather than an industrial studio, I also spend a lot of time in the it when I’m not working or painting. So I need to be able to live and relax in it.

Pretty standard, though. I like to surround myself with what will inspire me. Every view of the studio could be a painting. Things are placed in a way where I can be inspired by it, to think of a still life for a painting, or a color.

That’s why wine bottles have been making their ways into my paintings. And lemons. Because I’m drinking a lot of wine lately, and we have a lemon tree. 

I try to constantly add to the studio. I like to buy and collect antiques. It might be my true calling in life — maybe greater than art (laughs) when I’m antiquing. Finding historical things: little boxes, or clothes, ephemera, paintings, sculptures… 

I just love history, and I love that everything has a story. And maybe the story of how or where I found something is more important than the thing itself. Glasses from Copenhagen. Paintings from Paris. Everything comes from something or somebody that I got it from. 

Let’s talk a little about Café Telegrama? What was your interest in getting into hospitality?

It’s very natural. My parents owned night clubs. My first jobs were working at bars and restaurants — just in the middle of nowhere. And then every job I had in Chicago was at a café or a restaurant. I’ve worked in bakeries, sandwich shops, ice cream stores, cafes, Indian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, American restaurants… I’ve worked in hospitality most of my life. I like serving, talking with customers, dropping into conversations. And since living here in LA, I’m always hosting people at my house. It’s natural for me; I find joy in it. I feel like it’s one of my powers in life, to bring people together. 

Truly, traveling to Paris and around Europe and experiencing some of the best businesses that display that kind of feel.. a reflection of a way of life… I really love hospitality for that. Cafes are some of the last great places for artists to convene. They’re so important to the fabric of society, of reality. And I love how seriously great places take it, how much attention to detail goes into making these places special. That work behind it is what gets me on. I like that work, even if I’d rather be painting. 

So to me, it felt natural that I’d get into hospitality. And I think I’d like to do more. 

Also, I felt like I worked in some bad environments. And it reinforces my desire to bring what I feel is the most important aspect of hospitality… “vibe” is the wrong word… it’s more simply about the feel. There’s probably a Danish or Japanese word for it that we don’t have in English. 

Food, service and music. It’s simple. 

But design, too?

I met [garden / landscape designer] Luciano (Gibbons) at Telegrama. He said some things that changed my life; words he heard from another friend: “It doesn’t matter where you are. Any cafe, any restaurant. The only thing that matters is the music.”

That comment changed everything for me. I think it’s a universal truth.

What record needs to be at your shop?

Pink and Red by Madone. When I was in Paris I listened to the song “Chamber d’amour” every day, for a month!

What do you love about painting? What drew you to it?

It’s who I am. The paintings are who I am. It’s self-discovery.

And when did you start painting?

My Mom is a painter. She taught me when I was a kid. But the very first encounter I had with drawing was in Korea. I was playing with another kid who was drawing robots, in his room. 

For a long time, it was just an activity, like playing tennis. Not something I thought I’d make my life around. But here I am.

John Zabawa is an artist and a graphic designer based in Los Angeles, CA

Follow John's creative journey @JOHNZABAWA

All photos by @justinchung