Kde Done has known sensory details for as long as he can remember. As a boy, the artist spent much of his time in Maclean, a small fishing village 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 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 draw, and my mother was very encouraging,” says Done, now 81. “We were pretty poor. When you lived in a rural town like me, you had to make yourself a lot of fun. When the river was in flood it was this beautiful khaki color.” He grins. “There used to be big clumps of light green and blue hyacinths floating down.”
Done’s family left Maclean in 1950. They first lived in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and then moved to the beach suburb of Balmoral in 1954. Apart from a stint in London advertising in the 1960s, Done stayed in this part of Sydney for the next 60 years. He put down roots, raised a family and nurtured his boyish obsession in this stretch of Middle Harbour.
When Guardian Australia meets Done in his studio overlooking Rosherville Beach, a row of neon paddles hangs 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.
One, in turquoise and magenta, could be an index of his 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. These visions will soon dominate the facade of Customs House as part of Done’s first project for Vivid Festival. It says – how else? – For Sydney with love. It’s a collaboration that feels so inevitable, like such a case of cosmic alignment, that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t already happened.
“I’ve been describing Sydney Harbor for a long time,” says Done, who is wearing a shirt in a shade of pink that might stand out from his own palette. “I am very honored to have been asked to be a part of it.”
Chronicler of Sydney Harbour. Commercial artist turned painter. Kit tie symbol of a new generation. Of all the different – and contradictory – ways of reading Ken Done, none explains what it takes to spend a lifetime looking at the same subject over and over again. Using painterly attention as a tuning fork that can evoke not only a city’s beauty, but also its mood and seasons. His changed self-image.
Done starts his day at the harbor at 6am feeding a school of bream.
“They wait for me every morning,” he says. “Often dolphins come in. I love the days when the harbor is hot and glittering, full of colorful yachts and boats. I love it in winter when it’s purple and gray and soft. I love the shape of the rocks, the intensity of the green grass that is growing. The oysters.”
This relationship deepened during lockdown.
“I went through my normal routine,” he says. “Walk on the beach, swim, eat breakfast and then come straight to the studio.” He pauses. “It was a very productive time for me.”
Vivid, returning 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; Floods that claimed lives in the west of the city and browned the eastern port for a stretch in March. Maintaining the city’s ideals of beauty is more difficult. Its relation to the 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’m not working to shock people – because I think the things you see on TV every night are shocking.”
As a culture, he says, we’ve forgotten how to play. In his work for Vivid, colored pencil drawings give way to paintings depicting a day in the life of the city, in his words “on the beach, over the water, under the water”. He has made large-scale art before, best known for the Sydney Olympics. But thanks to his collaborators, the Spinifex Group, his images will float and float and move for the first time when projected onto the Customs House.
“Having your work on display so large and partially animated is fantastic,” says Done, whose daughter Camilla and assistant Kyoko helped realize the work. “James Morrison, an old friend of mine, does the music. You see a painting I did of Sydney Harbor and somehow a boat sails over the building. It’s so exciting.”
He hopes his latest work will be understood.
“I hope [people] understand the joy of it,” he says. “I hope you’re surprised by the number of abstract works shown that are all about color – color that transforms the facade of the building itself.”
It’s still fashionable in some circles to dismiss Done as purely commercial, a charge that other artists synonymous with Sydney, such as Martin Sharp or Brett Whiteley, are not accused of. But you can’t mythologize Done. He’s too steadfast. He survived too many zeitgeists, was too approachable and keeps working and finding 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 across New South Wales as part of Paintings You Maybe Haven’t Seen, a touring exhibition that began in February at the Griffith Regional Art Gallery and concludes in August at the Casula Powerhouse – an extraordinary feat of energy for an artist committed to his approaching 82nd birthday.
He is too kind. Manly, yes, but without machismo. Artist fees for Vivid are donated to charity. He has been married to his wife Judy for more than 50 years. His grandchildren often accompany him to 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 genuine curiosity. And when I ask the artist, a prostate cancer survivor, what he wants to do in the next ten years, he answers with utmost sincerity.
“The best thing about this question is the word decade,” he says. “I want to be in it at least another decade before my butt falls off.”
He smiles. “And I want to get better at what I do.”