In his 2016 memoir, A Life Coloured In, Ken Done writes of great works of art: “They don’t give you everything on the first viewing. The first viewing might thrill you, but if it’s any good, a painting will give you pleasure over time.” It’s hard not to draw a line between this comment and Done-the-artist’s relationship with Australia. He thrilled us in the 1980s and 1990s, slipped out of fashion by the aughts, before re-entering the public consciousness within the last five years, as part of the general renaissance of Australiana and 1980s aesthetics.
“People come to me now and say they had one of my [1987 Sheridan] doona covers [when they were kids]. I think [they made an impact because] there wasn’t anything like that in those days. And also I treated it seriously! I mean, it’s not the Sistine Chapel, but you have to make it beautiful, and make sure it’s right.”
For our special Summer issue, featuring his art on the cover, Time Out talked to Ken about summer in Sydney. As he says, “There is nothing more sensual or enjoyable than a Sydney summer, especially on those lovely days that the sun seems to be up forever.”
On our beaches
“The way that people arrange themselves on a beach here is very different from how people arrange themselves, for instance, on beaches in the south of France, where they’ll be much closer together and often on lilos or whatever, and they had to pay to be there. That’s one of the great things about the Australian beach – it’s a great egalitarian thing, a great leveller. No-one should ever own or control the beach.”
On his perfect summer day
Ken and his wife Judy live adjacent to Chinaman’s Beach, a small strip between Balmoral and the Spit.
“I wake up early and the first thing I do is feed the magpies and the lorikeets. Then I walk down through the garden to the studio – i was there this morning at 7 o’clock. I worked for about half an hour, then went further down through the garden, to the beach. Judy and I walk the beach every morning, and we clean up any rubbish. Then we have a swim, and finally we have breakfast. By this time the magpies have come back down to where we have breakfast and are waiting to be fed – again. And the butcher bird, seagulls – and about 50 large bream that I’ve been feeding every morning.”
Most days Ken is working in his gallery in the Rocks (where he has a studio) or painting at home. But other summer pastimes include securing the netting over their large fig tree (to prevent the birds getting them), and tending to the vegetable garden and grapes. “It’s pretty lovely where we live – we don’t take it for granted, and we’re happy to live there. I first saw this house when I was 14, and I really wanted to live there – that’s more than 60 years ago. It took me a long time to get it.”
Quintessential summer experiences
Done’s list of summer experiences includes barbecues and beach cricket, eating wild barramundi and prawns from his local fish shop, afternoon naps, and swimming at the beach at the bottom of his garden. He also kayaks around the harbour. “There are lots of tiny beaches around Middle Harbour, Seaforth and Clontarf that you can only reach by kayak. I like to jump out and have a swim.”
Done reckons that the citizenship test for new Australians should include the finer points of barbecue etiquette. “I am the tong master,” says Done. “And people need to understand that if you’re at someone’s house and they’re having a barbecue, you do not go over and pick up a sausage and move it around. Everyone is the tong master of their own barbecue.”