Ken Done has been attentive to sensory detail for as long as he can remember. As a child, the artist spent much of it in Maclean, a small fishing town in the Clarence Valley of New South Wales. There he pored over encyclopedias, mesmerized by images of butterflies. He listened to The Argonauts Club, a long-running children’s show on ABC Radio. He observed changes in the Clarence River, one of Australia’s largest waterways. These first impressions shaped him.
“I was an only child who loved to paint and my mother was very supportive,” says Done, now 81. “We were quite poor. If you lived in a country town like me, you must have had a lot of fun. When the river was in flood, it had this wonderful khaki color. He smiles. “Before, there were big clumps of shiny green and blue hyacinths floating around.”
Done’s family left Maclean in 1950. They first lived in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, then in 1954 moved to the seaside 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 put down roots, raised a family and exercised his childhood obsession with this stretch of Middle Harbour.
When Guardian Australia meets Done in his studio overlooking Rosherville Beach, on one wall there is a series of neon shovels. Its shelves are filled with books on Matisse and David Hockney. In the center of the room, three semi-abstract works are in progress.
One, in turquoise and magenta, could be a clue to her visual universe, a world of sailboats and water and subtropical flowers that has appeared on scarves and coffee mugs 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 seems so inevitable, like such a case of cosmic alignment, that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t already happened.
“I’ve been chronicling Sydney Harbor for a long time,” says Done, who wears a shirt in a shade of pink that could be pulled from her own palette. “I’m very honored to have been asked to be involved.”
Sydney Harbor Chronicler. Commercial artist turned painter. Symbol of a new generation’s love for kitsch. Of all the different – and conflicting – ways of reading Ken Done, none explains what it takes to spend a lifetime watching the same subject over and over again. Using pictorial attention as a tuning fork that can evoke not only the beauty of a city, but also its mood and seasons. His changing self-image.
Done starts his day in the harbor at 6am, where he feeds a school of bream.
“They wait for me every morning,” he said. “A lot of times the dolphins come in. I love 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 grass growing. Oysters.
This relationship deepened during the confinement.
“I followed 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 hiatus, coincides with a new period in Sydney’s history. In the background, there is a pandemic; a brutal housing crisis; flooding that claimed lives in the western part of the city, turning the eastern harbor brown for a period in March. It is more difficult to maintain notions of beauty in the city. His relationship to the show.
Done sees this change a little differently.
“In the times we live in, I think art should be more like poetry,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “He doesn’t have the power of television, he doesn’t have the power of radio. That should make you feel something. I don’t work to try to shock people – because I think the things you see on TV every night, they’re shocking.
As a culture, he says, we have forgotten how to play. In his work for Vivid, pencil drawings give way to paintings that depict a day in the life of the city, in his words, “at the beach, above the water, under the water.” He has done large-scale art before, including for the Sydney Olympics. But for the first time, thanks to his collaborators at the Spinifex Group, his paintings will drift, float and move as they are projected onto Customs House.
“Having your work displayed so large and having part of it animated is fantastic,” says Done, whose daughter Camilla and assistant Kyoko helped him get the job done. “James Morrison, an old friend of mine, does the music. You see a painting of mine of Sydney Harbor and a boat sails through the building. It’s so exciting.”
He hopes his latest work is understood.
“I hope [people] understand the joy that is there,” he says. “I hope they will be surprised by the number of abstract works on display that are all about color – a color that changes the facade of the building itself.”
It is still fashionable in some quarters to dismiss Done as purely commercial, an accusation not leveled against other artists synonymous with Sydney, such as Martin Sharp or Brett Whiteley. But you can’t mythologize Done. It’s too firm. He survived too much of the times, been too accessible and continues to work and find a new generation of audiences. Here he is at the Ken Done Gallery for fashion week, smiling in a polka dot 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 traveling exhibition that started in February at the Griffith Regional Art Gallery and ends in August at the Casula Powerhouse – exceptional energy for an artist approaching his 82nd birthday.
It is also nice. Masculine, yes, but devoid of machismo. Artist fees for Vivid will be donated to charity. He has been married to his wife, Judy, for over 50 years. His grandchildren often join him in the workshop.
“I’m not as good as a five-year-old,” Done says. “I’ll never be as good as a five-year-old.”
Done inquires about my creative life with genuine curiosity. And when I ask the artist, a prostate cancer survivor, what he wants to do in the next decade, he answers with absolute seriousness.
“The best part of this question is the word decade,” he says. “I want to be here for at least another decade before my butt drops off.”
He smiles. “And I want to get better at what I do.”