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

ken For as long as he can remember, Done has been living for sensory details. As a boy, the artist spent much of his life in Maclean, a small fishing village in the Clarence Valley in New South Wales. There he delved into encyclopedias, hypnotized by images 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 shaped him.

“I was an only child who loved to paint and my mother was very encouraging,” says Done, now 81. “We were pretty poor. If you lived in a country town like me, you had to make a lot of your own fun. When the river went down water, it was this beautiful khaki color.” He grins. “There used to be big clumps of bright green and blue hyacinths floating down.”

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

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

When Guardian Australia meets Done in his studio overlooking the stretch of beach at Rosherville, one wall is lined with neon shovels. His shelves are full of books about Matisse and David Hockney. In the center of the space are three semi-abstract works in progress.

One, in turquoise and magenta, could be an index to his visual universe, a world made of sailboats and water and subtropical flowers that has appeared on scarves and coffee cups and hundreds of paintings for decades. Soon, these visions will dominate 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 a case of cosmic alignment, it’s hard to believe it hasn’t happened yet.

“I’ve been drawing Sydney Harbor for a long time,” says Done, who wears a shirt in a shade of pink that could be lifted from his own palette. “I am very honored to have been asked to participate.”

Chronicler of Sydney Harbour. Commercial artist turned painter. Symbol of the love for kitsch of a new generation. Of all the different — and contradictory — ways of reading Ken Done, none explain what it takes to spend a lifetime looking at the same subject. Using painterly attention as a tuning fork that can evoke not only the beauty of a city, but also its mood and seasons. The changing self-image.

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

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Ken Done says the Covid lockdown has been ‘a very productive time’ for him. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

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

This relationship deepened during the lockdown.

“I went through my normal routine,” he says. “Walk on the beach, swim, have breakfast and then go straight to the studio.” He pauses. “It was a very productive time for me.”

Returning after a two-year hiatus, Vivid coincides with a new period in Sydney’s history. In the background there is a pandemic; a brutal housing crisis; floods costing lives on the west side of the city, turning the eastern harbor a bit brown in March. It’s harder to hold onto the city’s conceptions of beauty. The relation to spectacle.

Done sees this shift a little differently.

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

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Ken Done’s artwork will float and float when projected onto the Customs House as part of Sydney’s Vivid Light Festival. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

As a culture, he says, we have forgotten how to play. In his work for Vivid, chalk drawings give way to paintings depicting a day in the life of the city, in his words, “on the beach, above the water, under water”. He has created art on a large scale before, most famously for the Sydney Olympics. But for the first time, thanks to his collaborators, the Spinifex Group, his paintings will float and float and move as they are projected onto the Customs House.

“It’s fantastic to see your work this big and animate some of it,” said Done, whose daughter Camilla and assistant Kyoko helped him make the work a reality. “James Morrison, an old friend of mine, does the music. You see a painting of mine of Sydney Harbor and somehow a boat is sailing through the building. It is so exciting.”

He hopes his latest work is understood.

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

In some circles it is still fashionable to dismiss Done as purely commercial, an accusation not made against 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 to work and find a new generation of audiences. There he is at the Ken Done Gallery for fashion week, smiling in a mottled jacket after unveiling new designs with Romance Was Born. And again, in New South Wales, as part of Paintings You Probably Haven’t Seen, a touring exhibition that began in February at the Griffith Regional Art Gallery and ends in August at the Casula Powerhouse – an exceptional energy output for an artist who approaching his 82nd birthday.

Ken Done with a model backstage at the Romance Was Born show for 2022 Australian Fashion Week
Ken Done with a model backstage at the Romance Was Born show for 2022 Australian Fashion Week. Photo: Brendon Thorne/Getty Images

He’s also nice. Masculine, yes, but devoid of machismo. The artist fees for Vivid are donated to charity. He has been married to his wife Judy for over 50 years. His grandchildren often accompany him in the studio.

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

Done inquires with genuine curiosity about my creative life. And when I ask the artist, a prostate cancer survivor, what he wants to create in the next decade, he answers with the utmost seriousness.

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

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

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