Jonathan Zawada is filling the Opera House with colour and light

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Finding inspiration in the wildness of the Australian landscape

As far as canvasses go, it doesn’t get much more significant for an artist than the sails of the Sydney Opera House.

The place is iconic, known worldwide. It’s also domineering: 65 metres tall, set against the blue harbour, with sails like shark teeth.

Jonathan Zawada, who has created the colourful designs that will adorn the building’s exterior as part of Vivid Sydney's annual Lighting of the Sails this weekend, was halfway through his commission before he was reminded of the structure’s power.

“Living in Sydney, you don’t forget it, and you don’t not see it, but I guess I was a little blind to quite how enoromous and important it is,” Zawada told Double J.

The Lighting of the Sails in 2011 - La Macular by SUPERBIEN

The unique shape of the Opera House presented some challenges for the artist, whose practice stretches across graphic design, animation, object design, video and painting.

“I remodelled the Opera House from scratch so that I had a framework in the computer to build within,” he said.

“My approach was to think of it as a structure that I was filling with things rather than a surface that I was projecting on.

“The curves and the shape of it mean that it was unlike anything else that I would conceive of having imagery on, and incredibly challenging because of that, in ways that I hadn’t predicted until I got it into the 3-D software and started playing around with it.”

Last year's Lighting of the Sails

Zawada’s Opera House work, which is called Metamathemagical, takes inspiration from the Australian environment and the artist’s interpretation of his home country as “this kind of elemental, timeless place that is also completely new and full of energy”.

It helps that Zawada has spent significant time away from Australia.

He recently set up his young family in a semi-rural patch of northern New South Wales after six years living in Los Angeles, and in Sydney before that.

It has given him a new appreciation for the unending space of the Australian landscape and its rawness – how it is "incredibly beautiful" but also, in the creatures you find there, "darkly threatening".

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“There’s one sequence [in Metamathemagical] involving a giant snake body,” said Zawada, whose work often features bold colour and shapes.

“At one point we had five pythons living in and around our house. That made its way up there [onto the work].”

Working in LA also gave Zawada an insight into some of the more perverse aspects of the Australian character, including our inability to talk ourselves up.

“It took me a long time to realise that when people introduced me and said, ‘Jonathan’s an artist and does amazing artwork’, [and] I said back to them, and to whoever I was being introduced to, ‘actually I am terrible’ – because you are cultured as an Australian to be incredibly self-deprecating – they would receive that as being unbelievably rude,” he says.

“I’m not sure where it comes from and why we feel so compelled to do that all of the time.”

Zawada’s work has featured in exhibitions around the world, but he is perhaps best known for his collaborations with musicians.

Zawada's artwork for Flume

He did the artwork for The Presets’ self-titled album and created the computer-generated flower that adorned Skin by Flume.

“[It] kind of blows my mind when somebody sends me a message with a photo of a tattoo they have got of that cover,” Zawada says of the Flume record.

“I constantly am grinning to my wife that I get to be part of this process with these musicians.

“I love making things. Whatever those things end up being, I just enjoy the processs of making.”

Vivid LIVE happens at the Sydney Opera House from Friday 25 May to Saturday 16 June.

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