Artist John Zabawa’s “TELEGRAMS” Project Rekindles a Cherished Form of Connection

A request for letters from strangers, fans and friends—the promise of a response

Los Angeles-based artist John Zabawa (who has worked with Aesop, Ace Hotel and others, and was shown in a solo exhibition in Chicago in 2018 titled So Many People) announced his newest project, TELEGRAMS, with a letter crafted on a typewriter, marked with redactions and imperfections. He took to Instagram, posted a photo of the letter and left it with a simple caption: “PSA” followed by a mailbox emoji. Like many of our interactions nowadays, it originated online. But, Zabawa aims to further the initiative offline in an effort to “to preserve human connection through the written word.”

At the end of the letter, he leaves a PO Box for anyone to send “letters, drawings, secrets, revelations, questions, jokes, poems, ideas, thoughts, scripts, recipes, surveys, puzzles, sketches, white lies, lyrics, maps, horoscopes, theories, spells and concerns.” He promises to respond as quickly as possible, ensuring what he receives won’t go unanswered. There’s no way to predict what will be returned to you, but they’ll be worth cherishing. We connected with Zabawa to discuss the project and its intention.

You refer to the project as “an effort to preserve human connection through the written word.” Do you want to foster connections between yourself and fans/peers?

Sure, but it’s more about mutual discovery and learning new ways to communicate with people I may never meet or have the chance to speak to in person. Sharing a written letter with a stranger is indescribably beautiful and abstract. It’s even hard to describe and refer to it as a project, but this experience is new to me and I’m understanding more about it as it evolves.

Previously, you discussed how careful you are about where you seek inspiration, stating that found images and sources help form your vision for future projects. Are you using TELEGRAMS as a prompt for others to create original works—even if they’re just questions or concerns?

Perhaps. When we draw inspiration from our own lives and stories, then we are inherently creating our own original and unique works, even if they are just questions or concerns.

How would having something like this have helped you previously?

I’m not sure there was ever a better time than now. You could say that this project’s call to action was created as a result of the current state of the world and the times we are living in. It’s a time where face-to-face communication has been abruptly removed and letters are a great way to have that feeling back in this ephemeral time.

With TELEGRAMS, do you aim to be a resource? Somebody who will get back to an individual even if they feel alone, isolated, or without an audience?

I don’t see myself as another person’s resource. People can share anything that they desire and it doesn’t need to be taken so seriously. I recently received drawings, silly sketches, and funny letters, which feels like a source of light in a dark time. I have also received letters that are sincerely heartfelt and touching. However they choose to communicate, I reply following their lead.

There’s an art to writing, enveloping, addressing, and sealing a letter. Is that something you’re yearning for—a moment to appreciate the process?

Exactly. Process has always been important to me and my work and I believe that only through process can we find self discovery. While on this path, I hope that people find moments of catharsis when writing these letters. If I were speaking directly to them I would say, write what you wish and enjoy yourself.

It’s quite easy to check in with a two-word text or a minute-long phone call. Are you trying to break yourself out of those habits and revert to the written word?

Sort of, sometimes (most of the time) I live in the past and romanticize the “old ways.” There are many cherished and profound things to take away from this medium. It’s something that should be preserved and used more often. I obviously still use my phone and email to communicate, but when you write letters it comes from a different place within. Having it be a tangible object makes it more memorable and timeless. Who the hell throws away letters, anyway?

To send John a letter, poem, drawing and beyond, mail to: ATTN: John Zabawa, PO Box 26268, Los Angeles, CA 90026.

Images courtesy of John Zabawa