It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday but nevertheless busy in the Ken Done Gallery. This could be explained by its location in Sydney’s tourist heartland, The Rocks, but to assume that would be to ignore Ken Done’s enduring popularity as a painter, designer and artist.
Known around the world for his bright, vividly coloured paintings, his work is familiar to most Australians who grew up in the 1980s. His art has always had an appeal – whether viewed on a canvas or a doona cover – particularly to the Japanese, who’ve revered him for decades. His paintings are personal and endlessly optimistic, depicting all that is loved about Australia. The gallery collection is filled with works painted from his studio overlooking Chinamans Beach, the Barrier Reef and, of course, Sydney Harbour.
Now, at 75, Ken Done has written his memoir, A Life Coloured In, no small feat for a man who doesn’t use computers. He spoke about his life and book with Rachel Kent, Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, yesterday in The Loft at Pier 2/3.
“I wrote it in long hand, in books and on bits of paper,” he said. “Then there was the process that all writers know, seeing what the editors might bring to it and what the lawyers might bring to it. I had 140,000 words and it’s been cut down to 80,000.”
In fact, he makes the process of writing the book sound surprisingly easy, and reading his memories of a ‘Huckleberry Finn’ childhood in the northern NSW town of Maclean suggests that perhaps it was. “I found when I started writing, I could remember more about my childhood than I could about last Tuesday. It led me to remember some quite wonderful things. It’s a bit like doing a painting. You have some idea of the start, but you’re not quite sure of the adventure, of where it will take you.”
In this case, the book and his paintings are leading Ken Done into a new conversation about art – what exactly is it?
He was never loved by the art establishment in Australia. In 1994, Susan McCulloch went so far as to exclude him from her Encyclopedia of Australian Art, and some of his paintings have only recently been hung in the National Portrait Gallery.
“I never had this problem in Japan, where I’ve had a lot of very big exhibitions. I think the success of the commercial side of what we did always will get in the way of some people’s attitude to my work.”
Coming as he did from a background in advertising and design, his suspicions are probably right. He was only 19 when he began his career as an art director for a major advertising agency in London, evidence not only of his talent, but also his pluck and determination. But it wasn’t until 1980 – the year he turned 40 – that he held his first exhibition, in the Holdsworth Gallery in Sydney. From there, he opened his own gallery in North Sydney. The current gallery in The Rocks was opened in 1994.
But his entrepreneurial spirit – and, no doubt, superior marketing skills – pushed him beyond the gallery and a multi-million dollar business was born. “I went to art school when I was 14, it was all I ever wanted to do. But I didn’t imagine the minute I left art school, I’d sit in a studio and paint pictures,” he said.
“So I opened my own gallery and then I opened the first shop, because I’d done 12 T-shirts in the first exhibition and people responded to them very well. That led to making more product and to people wanting to license my design.”
In fact, it led to an extensive range of home-wares, clothing and gifts hugely popular both here and overseas.
One could say the current gallery is the last store standing, a small reminder of an empire that once employed 150 people in 15 stores around the country, and attracted busloads of tourists – particularly Japanese – up until the late 1990s.
While the stores are now all closed and the overseas licensing agreements were wound back years ago, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign of failure – by his own admission Ken Done had had enough. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. It was interesting but it was taking me down a track I didn’t want to go, so essentially we gave up everything.”
Well, that’s not quite true. While he has turned his focus to painting – “for the last 20 years, I’ve just 100 per cent been involved with making paintings as good as I can make them” – the Ken Done brand lives on in a small shop adjoining the gallery. Ken’s wife Judy, whom he married in London in 1965, still designs a few clothing staples for the gallery, transferring Ken’s work to beautiful, flowing silk shirts and ‘art tops’. These sell alongside the original Sydney Harbour T-shirt that started it all.
Ken Done, and his critics, are also slowly coming to terms with his moniker as “Australian artist”. It’s taken a long time but it seems the art establishment is finally warming to his work. An exhibition in 2011 at the Mosman Art Gallery depicting an attack by Japanese midget submarines in Sydney Harbour in 1942, garnered glowing reviews.
He’s still reticent about the praise those paintings received, saying, “In part of my mind, I know that people looked at them critically because they were dealing with serious subjects, the subject of attack, the subject of war, the subject of death, the subject of drowning. They were serious subjects.”
Still, he’s willing to admit even his “pretty” work can be political, like his Barrier Reef paintings, drawn from memories of recent and past diving trips.
“I’ve intentionally used bright colours,” he said, referring to a Barrier Reef painting. “I’ve changed things around – it’s not a photo, it’s a painting of how beautiful the Barrier Reef is. That’s what I want people to see. And then I want people to think about how shocking it would be if we didn’t have the Reef.”
But surely that would be taking painting, and art, too seriously. But for Ken Done, art really only has one purpose. “It’s for the soul, it’s to make you feel good, it’s to lose yourself within. But it’s not as serious as some artists or critics would have you believe.”