Man Candy: Ken Done

Words by
Sally Wilson
| May 11, 2016

Did colour and optimism exist in Australia before the dawn of the Ken Done era? I ask because it’s hard to imagine life here without his riot-filled brushstrokes and iconic grin. In the 1980s Ken’s art took hold of our national psyche – took hold and shook it – with a procession of colours that were bright, unfailingly optimistic and which spoke proudly of wide open spaces. Beach life, flora, fauna, doonas, tea towels and swimsuits in Australia would never be the same again. We began to see Australia through Done-tinted glasses and we haven’t sought to take them off since.

This year Ken turns 76. He’s a father, a grandfather and Australia’s beloved painter and he shares some of what he knows about life with us here on The Planthunter.

Please tell us about yourself and what you do.
I am an Australian artist, father and grandfather. I have also just written a memoir, A Life Coloured In, and it’s given me the opportunity to tell people a lot about my life that they may not have known.

I’ve travelled extensively, every continent in the world from the incredible lushness of the Brazilian jungle with more plants than you can imagine, to the harsh landscape of the Antarctic where occasionally you may come across a little piece of moss.

What does it mean to you to be a man?
I can be called Dad and Grandad. To be a man means that you respond to certain things that could be called masculine. But most importantly is to understand the side that is called feminine. Both of these labels seem to me to be fairly trite as all human beings have the ability to be strong and sensitive.

What has been your most significant personal achievement?
A lifetime of working with my family is where it starts, and a lifetime doing pretty much the things that I want to do. To be an artist is simply to embark upon a journey of personal discovery and gives you the opportunity to communicate to people your deepest visual feelings about various things.

What’s your worst habit?
Rushing into things, sometimes without considering the consequences, however age does bring with it a certain ability to control that impulse.

What do you regard as man’s worst habit?
Resorting to war.

Which female in history or the present day do you admire and why?
Judy, Camilla, Ava, Stella & Yvette because they are my family. Also my mother and my aunts were profoundly important to my early years, as during the war, when the rest of the men were away, I was brought up essentially in a household of women. My mother was bright, enthusiastic and an avid reader. She introduced me to the joy of books at a very early age and was a total supporter of my work.

If you were a plant, what would you be?
An avocado, because I would be delicious to eat and good for you.

Is it really a man’s world?
No.

What is one piece of wisdom (a saying, a philosophy for life, etc.) that you learnt from your dad/grandfather?
Look to this day.

What is one characteristic or trait that you inherited from your mum/grandmother?
Never give up, from my mother.

If you had to make a garden with 3 plants, what would they be and why have you chosen each of them?
A frangipani for its beautiful smell, and because even when it loses every leaf, it’s still a wonderful pattern against the sky.

We have quite a number of frangipanis in our garden, with colours from the classic creamy white and yellow through a soft pink to a very dark, rich red. I never tire of their beauty.

The second would be a fruit tree. We are fortunate enough to grow mandarins, oranges, lemons, figs, mulberries and avocados, although I’m still waiting for the avocado to bear fruit. We also have quite a few vegetables in our garden, from capsicum, broccoli, all the herbs, tomatoes, beans, eggplants and spinach.  All lovely to look at, all delicious to eat.

What do you love most about women?
Their sensitivity and their love.

Name one thing you couldn’t live without.
Painting.

What would you be doing in an alternate life or career?
I’d love to be a musician. A singer, pianist, or a saxophone player. I love the fact that musicians can play together and share that experience, and have the immediate response from an audience. For the painter, who must work alone, only the dog barking twice can tell you whether it’s a good picture or not.

What’s one lesson you’ve learnt from the plant kingdom?
With care and affection, you can grow.

Last month Ken Done released his memoir, A Life Coloured In (HarperCollins). His latest exhibition, Ken Done: Paintings from Antarctica runs from 7 June to 5 July 2016 at The Ken Done Gallery, The Rocks, Sydney. You can also visit Ken Done’s WEBSITEINSTAGRAMFACEBOOK  and TWITTER.

Featured image of Ken Done’s studio by Rob Palmer.

Ken and 'Sunflowers'. Image by Stuart Spence.
Ken and 'Sunflowers'. Image by Stuart Spence.
Ken Done's 'Bougainvillea barbecue', 2000.
Ken Done's 'Bougainvillea barbecue', 2000.

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