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 encyclopaedias, hypnotised 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 make a lot of your own fun. When the river was in flood, it was this wonderful khaki colour.” He grins. “It used to have big clumps of bright green and blue hyacinths floating down.”
Done’s family left Maclean in 1950. They lived, first, 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 Harbor.
When Guardian Australia meets Done in his studio overlooking the sliver of Rosherville beach, on one wall there’s a series of neon shovels. His shelves are lined with books about Matisse and David Hockney. In the center of the room, three semi-abstract works are in progress.
One, in turquoise and magenta, could be an index of his visual universe, a world made from sailboats and water and subtropical flowers that has appeared for decades on scarves and 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 Harbor for a long time,” says Done, who’s wearing a shirt in a shade of pink that could be lifted from his own palette. “I’m very honored that I was asked to be involved.”
Chronicler of Sydney Harbor. 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 not just a city’s beauty but its mood and seasons. Its changing self-image.
Done starts his day on the harbor at 6am, where he feeds a school of bream.
“They wait for me every morning,” he says. “Often, dolphins come in. I love the days on which the harbor is hot and sparkling, full of brightly colored yachts and boats. I love it in the winter when it is mauve and gray and soft. I love the shape of the rocks, the intensity of the green weed that grows. The oysters.”
This relationship deepened during lockdown.
“I went through my normal routine,” he says. “Walking on the beach, going for a swim, 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. In the backdrop, there’s a pandemic; a brutal housing crisis; floods that cost lives on the western side of the city, 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 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 make work to try to shock people – because I think that the things you see on television each night, they’re shocking.”
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 life of the city, in his words, “at the beach, above the water, under the water”. He’s made art on a major scale before, most famously for the Sydney Olympics. But for the first time, thanks to his collaborators the Spinifex Group, his paintings will drift and float and move as they are projected on to 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 realise the work. “James Morrison, an old friend of mine, is doing the music. You see a painting of mine of Sydney Harbor and somehow a boat sails across the building. It’s so exciting.”
He hopes his latest work is understood.
“I hope [people] understand the joy in it,” he says. “I hope they are surprised by the number of abstract works that are 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 levelled at other artists synonymous with Sydney, such as Martin Sharp or Brett Whiteley. But you can’t mythologise Done. He’s too steadfast. He has survived too many zeitgeists, been too accessible and continues to work and find a new generation of audience. There 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 that started in February at Griffith Regional Art Gallery and finishes in August at the Casula Powerhouse – an exceptional output of energy for an artist approaching his 82nd birthday.
He’s also nice. Masculine, yes, but devoid of machismo. Artist fees for Vivid will be donated to charity. He’s been married to his wife, Judy, for more than 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 inquires about my creative life with a genuine curiosity. And when I ask the artist, a survivor of prostate cancer, 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.”