Five large square canvases dominate Ken Done’s light-filled, airy studio overlooking the harbour at Mosman. Four are recently completed while the fifth sits on an easel, a work in progress.
“It’s one of a series I’m working on about Chinamans Beach,” he says. “I’m calling them notes because a note is not too serious, right? It’s not the Sistine Chapel. Just a note.”
I’m curious as to why one of the canvases is turned to face the wall.
“That one is an absolute f---ing disaster,” he says. “It’s ashamed and so it should be. But I can make it work in the end.”
At nearly 82, the passion burns as brightly as ever for Done as does his endearing tendency for self-deprecation. His commitment to his practice and work ethic is legendary. While he has accumulated the sort of wealth that presents almost limitless possibilities, he chooses instead to wrestle every day with brushes, paint and self-criticism in his studio.
“The drive is to continue to get better,” he says. “I’m painting over a lot of pictures that I’m not so crazy about. I’ve got to absolutely love them to keep them now. At 82 I’m better than I was at 42, but I hope to be better still.”
Done carries those eight decades lightly. Instantly recognisable with his unkempt grey hair and trademark fashionably unfashionable moustache, he’s wearing a paint-spattered grey T-shirt and what looks like multicoloured pyjama pants, apparently held up by a piece of rope.
He’s great company – gregarious, generous and funny – and clearly enjoys telling tales from a life well lived but is equally excited about future projects.
The latest of those is a collaboration with an old friend, jazzman James Morrison, to project designs onto the facade of Customs House at Circular Quay as part of this year’s Vivid festival.
He says he was “thrilled” to be asked; and teaming up with Morrison again – the pair collaborated on a 1988 album, Postcards from Down Under – was a no-brainer. Entitled For Sydney with Love, it’s an homage to the city that captured his heart from an early age.
“As a kid, I lived in Belmore, and in those days the train stopped at Central, so you had to get a bus to Circular Quay,” he says. “I’d rush to that top seat to see the first glimpse of the amazing, glittering harbour. You can never bugger up Sydney as long as you have the harbour.”
These days, he can see his beloved harbour in all of its moods through practically every window in his stunning home, which is perched above Chinamans Bay. His daily ritual involves a swim and feeding the bream that congregate in swarms each morning at the end of the garden. Then it’s on to cater for the lorikeets and magpies because otherwise “they’d probably open the fridge door and help themselves”.
Done was just 14 when he went to art school at what was then East Sydney Tech, in Darlinghurst. He loved his time there, even if his initial motivations were less than high-minded.
“What I really wanted to see was a totally nude woman,” he says. “I was 14 and I was ready.”
After four years of revelling in his studies – and the naked female form – he was lured away by the prospect of earning 14 pounds a week at Smith and Julius, a Surry Hills commercial art studio.
It was to be the start of his hugely successful career in advertising – even now he is still often referred to sniffily as “former adman” Ken Done.
That career took him around the world, including lengthy stints in New York and London. But by the late ’60s, the hankering to become a full-time artist had become overwhelming.
“I liked the ad business,” he says. “I had good accounts and I was good at it. But I wanted to be a painter. So on the Monday morning I went in to John Sharman [the then chairman of ad agency J Walter Thompson] and resigned, because if you’re going to do it you have to give it 100 per cent.”
At the time, that precipitous decision to turn his back on a very lucrative career surprised and concerned many of those around him, including Ric Hedley, a classmate from art school with whom he remains firm friends nearly 70 years later.
“He was top of the tree,” Hedley says. “It was a big gamble. The painting business was very haphazard in those days because not only did you have to paint pictures, you had to get yourself exhibitions, you had to get to galleries, you had to get people following you.”
The first year or two of his fledgling art career were tough, but Done was never going to end up starving in a garret; his commercial instincts were far too acute.
- See: Ken Done’s For Sydney with Love at Customs House from 6pm to 11pm.
- Hear: Sampa the Great’s An Afro Future at the Sydney Opera House on May 27.
- Talk: Beauty, art and fluidity with Troye Sivan and Flex Mami in conversation at Sydney Town Hall on May 29.
- See: Andre Kecskes’ Equilateral, a futuristic installation of moving triangles, at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, from 6pm to 11pm.
- Hear: Spiritualized perform at The Big Top, Luna Park on June 16.
- Talk: The future of work with Bri Lee, Dr Emma A. Jane, Jamila Rizvi and Malini Raj at The Great Hall, UTS, on June 7.
Vivid runs from Friday, May 27 to Saturday, June 18.
He staged his first exhibition in 1980 and shortly afterwards established the gallery in The Rocks that still bears his name. From there he and his wife, Judy, began producing a range of clothing and homewares featuring his upbeat, colourful and deceptively simple designs, which mainlined the zeitgeist of the ’80s and ’90s. Done-designed T-shirts, tea towels and swimwear became ubiquitous, particularly in Japan, where his reputation reached the next level.
“I could draw koalas so cute that nine-year-old Japanese girls fainted from their very cuteness,” he says, only partly joking.
By the end of the 1980s, there were 15 Ken Done stores across the country employing 150 staff, and Australia and the rest of the world could not get enough of his breezy and optimistic style. There was scarcely a home here without a Ken Done tea towel in the kitchen or one of his calendars on the wall.
Yet, even as he seemingly had the world at his feet, the art establishment and some amateur critics continued to sneer at the “former adman”.
Brett Whiteley famously snickered, “I would rather take methadone than Ken Done”. More recently the Herald’s John McDonald dubbed him “the DJ of Sydney’s perpetual dance party”.
“Like a pop star known for a few big hits he may get tired of singing the same old tune, over and over, but he’s well aware that he needs to keep giving his audience what they want,” McDonald wrote.
When I mentioned over dinner recently that I was writing this profile, the ensuing debate was long and vigorous among my friends, most of whom seemed to land on the dubious point that he can’t be a “real” artist because he is “too commercial”.
Barry Humphries, himself no stranger to the Australian preoccupation with lopping the heads from unruly poppies, once told Done: “They’ll never forgive you for being successful.”
Done says he’s learnt to tune out the critics.
“It doesn’t get to me the way that it used to. It used to because I never set out to do anything to upset people. I never shied away from my time in the business, or the fact that I did some things that were very commercial.
“Painters need to understand a little bit about business. It’s too easy for some painters to say, ‘I’m an artist, I don’t want anything to do with business’. If you’ve got an independent income or if you’re getting money from the government, you can do that. But if you want to work, you’ve got to do some things that people will respond to.
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to say: ‘no one understands my work’. But maybe it’s not very good? Could that be?”
Ten years ago, Done made a series of paintings responding to the story of the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney Harbour and the sinking of HMAS Kuttabul. Uncharacteristically dark, the works attracted positive attention, with curator Glenn Barkley even declaring they could sit “comfortably” alongside any of Brett Whiteley’s works.
Long-time friend, gallerist and collector Trevor Harvey believes Done is painting better now than he ever has.
“He’s very under-rated, underestimated,” he says. “But he is painting at the peak of his powers. The last four or five years he’s been doing really amazing, extraordinary work.
“He’s not bitter. He’s just having a lovely time with paint. And he goes about it every day. He thinks he’s got the best job in the world, which I think is a beautiful thing.”
Harvey points particularly to a series of works that came from a 2015 trip Done made to Antarctica: “As a collector, I wanted every piece, but of course they got snapped up.”
Done himself says he is detecting a shift in how his work is regarded.
“It is changing in lots of ways over these last couple of years because people understand the work more. But in the end, does that really matter? I still have to walk out of this room with a painting that I like to take upstairs.”
It remains a fact that there is not a single Ken Done in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of NSW.
Loyal friend Ric Hedley, who went on to a career teaching art, calls that omission “disgusting”.
“His work has been in Brisbane and Melbourne and Japan and all over the world and he still can’t get one in the Art Gallery of NSW.”
Done is a little more measured.
“It’s … disappointing would be one of the words. Narrow would be another word. But I’m not going to say invite me to your party. I’m not begging. The work’s there over a long period of time. I would hope at some point something I have done might be considered worthy of keeping.”
Then, as if concerned he might come across as taking himself too seriously, he points to a plastic gnome sitting on a bookshelf in the studio.
“My daughter gave me that gnome and it’s very, very important to me,” he says. “It farts. And so if I’ve been in here working and I think, ‘What a clever boy I am’, I walk out the door and the gnome farts. It puts everything in perspective. Everybody should have a farting gnome.”
A cultural guide to going out and loving your city. Sign up to our Culture Fix newsletter here.
To read more from Spectrum, visit our page here.