“We Were Very Proud Of Being Australian” – An Interview With Ken Done

It’s impossible to think about Australian art without thinking of Ken Done. A cult icon and a national treasure, his work conveys a particularly Australian sense of character; colourful and confident, and as vivid as the landscape that inspires it. Ken turned 75 this week, so to celebrate we asked him about his work, his passionate love of Sydney, and the evolution of The Rocks from a man who calls it home.

I was born in the western suburbs, in Belmore, and of course now I’m extremely old, but if you go back to when I was less than five, and during the war – I was born in 1940 – the most exciting thing that I can remember is my mother bringing me to Circular Quay to get on the Manly Ferry, to go out to visit my other grandparents in Manly. And I just, even then, thought that the Harbour was absolutely beautiful, and it would always have a sense of magic and a sense of adventure for me, since the earliest times that I can remember.

Then if we skip forward a few years when we lived in Cremorne and I went to the National Art School – I was 14 and a half, I was the youngest student that went there – I took the ferry from Cremorne to Circular Quay every morning. This was before the Opera House was built. First of all before the Opera House when it was the old tram shed at the end of Bennelong Point, and then right up to later on when the Opera House was being built. So the city skyline then was very different; the highest building was not much bigger than Customs House, and then of course the AMP Building was built, which we thought was just absolutely breathtaking in its height. Of course, things change dramatically.

I used to sail past The Rocks. And The Rocks was a rather, kind of slightly strange area in those days. You saw the Sailors’ Home and it had a couple of pubs that had quite a notorious image, and basically it was a totally separate area; slightly dangerous on the weekend, and rather separate from the city. So I guess like a lot of Sydneysiders, unless you lived here you didn’t come into The Rocks very much. When I was art school there was a great pub, The Port Jackson, that played jazz, so we would come down to that but probably not venture too much further down into George St.

But then, if you jump a long time, into the ’80s – I had my first exhibition when I was 40, in 1980, and I had a little terrace house that I was renting in North Sydney, and I made the first Sydney Harbour t-shirts, and people liked them so much that I made some more. They were quite simplistic in a sense that they had been a drawing that I exhibited in that first exhibition and I made 12 of them to give to the press. I numbered them 1-12, that’s it. Well, I thought that would be it. And of course it wasn’t it. It was much more than ‘it’. And after having them hanging on a coat hanger in a tree outside the little gallery in North Sydney I thought, “Wow, we have to be somewhere where people are”.

I saw an ad in the newspaper one Saturday morning from a guy who wanted to sell the lease of 123 George St. He was a very interesting man. His name was Louis Brouckxou and he was the Consul for the Cameroons. He had a little gallery called The Abbia Gallery at 123 George St, with hessian bags hanging across the centre of the room and behind that was the Consulate. There really weren’t too many shops in The Rocks, certainly not shops doing the kind of thing that I wanted to do. When I first saw the building I really thought it would be a terrific place for an art gallery and a little shop, so I took over the lease.

In those days we just had some Sydney Harbour t-shirts. But look, I’d already been to Acapulco, I’d been to Portofino, I’d been to New York, I’d been to Paris; I knew where we fitted in the world. When I went to America, for instance, I didn’t go with a chip on my shoulder thinking “Oh gosh I’ve come from some backwood country”, I went knowing I’d come from one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

In those early days it was also the great time of the expansion of the economy of Japan, and it was young Japanese girls, by and large, who were the first really heavy consumers of what we did. So the shop opened in 1982, and by about 1984 there used to be queues down George St. You couldn’t get into the shop. And it was the time when the Japanese were very wealthy as a country, and it was tradition that you should take back gifts for all your friends. So we would find ourselves restocking the shop two or three times a day!

But so, the point of all this is that The Rocks and I have been together for a long time. I love wandering through The Rocks. And it’s changed so dramatically – it’s wonderful now.

My work is very popular again, and I think it’s all about timing. Back then, I think we were kind of ready for it – the country was ready for it. And there were lots of other factors that came together – there was World Series Cricket. There was ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’. There was the Americas Cup. We were extremely confident, economically and as a nation, and emotionally we were extremely confident. And it was a time where you could buy anything that said “Look, you know, this is extremely Australian.” And you take Jenny Kee‘s work, and Reg Mombassa‘s work, and Martin Sharp, or maybe me – there were a number of people making things.

But as a nation, suddenly, we were very proud of being Australian. Of being Australians. And there were lots of factors adding to that. Almost inevitably with every kind of cyclical thing, everybody thinks: “Woah, it’s fantastic! It’s really lovely! Woah, wonderful! We think it’s so fantastic!” Then: “I dunno, it’s everywhere! Urgh, it’s crap! Oh now, actually, it was really good,” and it’s kind of that cyclical thing.

So I’ve been around that particular wheel, and now, how long ’til I go up the other side? Who knows? I might go right over the top again. People write lots of wonderful things about it now, which is really good, but I’m 75 this week, so, you know. Will I come again?

Ken Done Gallery is at 1 Hickson Road, The Rocks, and is open 10am to 5:30pm every day. Ken is often there, so come visit; you may get to meet an Australian icon (and a lovely bloke).

From everyone at The Rocks: happy birthday, Ken.

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