The very nice Ken Done: ‘I’ll never be as good as a five-year-old’ | Art

Ken Done has been alive to sensory details for as long as he can recall. As a boy, the artist spent a large part in Maclean, a small fishing town in New South Wales’s Clarence Valley. There, he pored over encyclopedias, hypnotized by pictures of butterflies. He listened to The Argonauts Club, a long-running children’s program on ABC Radio. He observed shifts in the Clarence River, one of Australia’s largest waterways. These early impressions formed him.

“I was an only child who liked to paint, and my mother was very encouraging,” says Done, now 81. “We were quite poor. If you lived in a country town as I did, you had to have much of your fun. It was this wonderful khaki color when the river was in flood.” He grins. “It used to have big clumps of bright green and blue hyacinths floating down.”

Commercial artist-turned-painter Ken Done in his studio. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Done’s family left Maclean in 1950. They first lived in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and then, in 1954, moved to the beachside suburb of Balmoral. Aside from a stint working in London advertising in the 1960s, Done would remain in this part of Sydney for the next 60 years. He put down roots, raised a family, and trained his boyish obsessiveness on this stretch of Middle Harbour.

When Guardian Australia meets Done in his studio overlooking the sliver of Rosherville beach, there’s a series of neon shovels on one wall. His shelves are lined with books about Matisse and David Hockney. In the center of the room, three semi-abstract works are in progress.

I love [Sydney Harbour] in winter when it is mauve, grey, and soft. I love the shape of the rocks.

In turquoise and magenta, one could be an index of his visual universe, a world made from sailboats, water, and subtropical flowers that have appeared for decades on scarves, coffee cups, and hundreds of paintings. Soon these visions will command the facade of Customs House as part of Done’s first project for the Vivid festival. It’s called – what else? – For Sydney. With Love. It’s a collaboration that feels so inevitable, like such a case of cosmic alignment, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t already happened.

“I’ve been chronicling Sydney Harbour for a long time,” says Done, wearing a shirt in a shade of pink that could be lifted from his palette. “I’m very honored that I was asked to be involved.”

Ken Done

Chronicler of Sydney Harbour. Commercial artist-turned-painter. Symbol of a new generation’s love of kitsch. Of all the different – and conflicting – ways to read Ken Done, none explain what it takes to spend a lifetime looking over and over again at the same subject. To use painterly attention as a tuning fork that can evoke a city’s beauty, mood, and seasons. It changes self-image.

Done starts his day on the harbor at 6 am, where he feeds a school of bream.

Ken Done says the Covid lockdown was a very productive time for him. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“They wait for me every morning,” he says. “Often, dolphins come in. I love the days when the harbor is hot and sparkling, full of brightly colored yachts and boats. I love it in winter when it is mauve, grey, and soft. I love the shape of the rocks and the intensity of the growing green weed. The oysters.”

This relationship deepened during the lockdown.

I don’t do work to try to shock people.

“I went through my normal routine,” he says. “Walking on the beach, swimming, having breakfast, and then coming straight to the studio.” He pauses. “For me, it was a very productive time.”

Vivid, which returns after a two-year break, coincides with a new period in Sydney’s history. Against the backdrop, there’s a pandemic; a severe housing crisis; floods that cost lives on the city’s western side, turning the eastern harbor brown for a stretch in March. It’s more difficult to sustain the city’s notions of beauty. Its relationship to the spectacle.

Done sees this shift a little differently.

“In the time in which we live, I think art should be more like poetry,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “It does not have the power of television; it does not have the power of radio. It should make you feel something. I don’t do work to try to shock people – because I think the things you see on television each night are shocking.”

Ken Done’s artworks will drift and float as they are projected to Customs House as part of Sydney’s Vivid light festival. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

As a culture, he says, we’ve forgotten how to play. In his work for Vivid, crayon drawings give way to paintings that portray a day in the city’s life: “at the beach, above the water, under the water”. He’s made art on a major scale, most famously for the Sydney Olympics. But for the first time, thanks to his collaborators, the Spinifex Group, his paintings will drift, float, and move as they are projected onto Customs House.

“To have your work displayed so large and for part of it to be animated is fantastic,” says Done, whose daughter Camilla and assistant Kyoko helped him realize the work. “James Morrison, an old friend, is doing the music. You see a painting of mine of Sydney Harbour and a boat sails across the building. It’s so exciting.”

He hopes his latest work is understood.

“I hope [people] understand its joy,” he says. “I hope they are surprised by the number of abstract works shown that are just about color – color that changes the facade of the building itself.”

It’s still fashionable, in some quarters, to dismiss Done as purely commercial, a charge that isn’t leveled at other artists synonymous with Sydney, such as Martin Sharp or Brett Whiteley. But you can’t mythologize. Done. He’s too steadfast. He has survived too many zeitgeists, been too accessible, and continues working to find a new audience generation. He is at the Ken Done Gallery for fashion week, smiling in a spotted jacket after unveiling new designs with Romance Was Born. And again, around New South Wales, as part of Paintings, You Probably Haven’t Seen, a touring exhibition started in February at Griffith Regional Art Gallery and finished in August at the Casula Powerhouse – an exceptional output of energy for an artist approaching his 82nd birthday.

Ken Done with a model backstage at the Romance Was Born show for 2022 Australian fashion week. Photograph: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

He’s also nice. Masculine, yes, but devoid of masculinity. Artist fees for Vivid will be donated to charity. He’s married his wife, Judy, for over 50 years. His grandchildren often join him in the studio.

“I’m not as good as a five-year-old,” says Done. “I’ll never be as good as a five-year-old.”

Done enquires about my creative life with genuine curiosity. And when I ask the artist, a prostate cancer survivor, what he wants to make in the next decade, he answers with utter gravity.

“The best part of that question is the word decade,” he says. “I want to be around for at least another decade before my bum drops off.”

He smiles. “And I want to get better at what I do.”

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.