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Talking Heads -

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PETER THOMPSON: On Talking Heads, artist Ken Done. Goodness knows what proportion of the population
has owned one of his Sydney Harbour T-shirts.

KEN DONE: Even though I've been painting here for years and years and years, you still have to come
and look at it and draw it.

PETER THOMPSON: He created a multi-million dollar business sort of by accident and lost much of his
money the same way. Although he didn't exhibit until the age of 40, Ken Done always wanted to be a
painter. His long tour of duty through the world of advertising obviously helped both he and his
work become icons in Australia and Japan. Ken Done, welcome to Talking Heads.

KEN DONE: Thank you very much, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Tell me, why do you paint what you paint?

KEN DONE: I've always painted. I can't remember a time when I wasn't painting. Painting for me is
just about communicating about what I feel about the world or the things around me and it's what I
like to do best.

PETER THOMPSON: More than anything else it's what expresses who you are.

KEN DONE: Yes, it's the most direct thing. I think art's a fantastically honest business. You can
tell a great deal about the artist by looking at their work or their attitude to things and it's
quite blatant in my work of how much I love Australia or the environment in which I live.

PETER THOMPSON: Have you always seen yourself as ambitious?

KEN DONE: I'm ambitious to a degr... I'm ambitious to be better at what I'm doing. The course, the
track that I have set. Do I want more things? No. I've lost more money than most people earn. So
it's not about money. It's just about the work.

PETER THOMPSON: Ambitious for the work, then?

KEN DONE: Yes, ambitious for the work. I'll just give you this one as a way of defining experience.
A guy came up to me in Canberra years ago. It was on a Friday - Canberra airport, very busy. He was
sitting there in a suit. Businessman - he's got a briefcase. He called me over, he said... He said,
"Are you Ken Done?" I said, "Yes." He said, "I've always wanted to meet you." I said, "Thank you
very much." He said, "I just want to tell you, I know that no-one else in the world likes what you
do but I think it's great." I thought to myself...


KEN DONE: No-one else in the world - that would be a fairly large number. No-one else in the

PETER THOMPSON: Ultimate back-handed compliment.

KEN DONE: I think...I think I knew what he meant. But no-one else in the world? Anyway, if I
contrast that with something that happened last year. I was having a colonoscopy and I was lying
there, about to be examined by this particular doctor. Curtain opened and an Indian man came with a
turban and he had a clipboard and he said, "Mr Done?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "Mr Ken Done?" I
said, "Yeah." He said, "Are you the famous Mr Ken Done?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "This would
be a great honour."


KEN DONE: So some artists measure their success by you know, what galleries show their work. But
that's where I'm at the moment.


KEN DONE: I was born in June in 1940 in Belmore. During the War, my father was a bomber pilot and
he was away and I was the first child. I can't imagine I would have been spoilt by having four
women and a grandmother in the house. But I certainly remember it as a fantastic childhood. Such a
joy to be on a ferry. I'm sure I fell in love with Sydney Harbour as a little boy when I first saw
it. Of course the Opera House wasn't there then. But there's always something about the sparkling
feeling of the Harbour or the feeling of the buildings on the edge of it or just the great thrill
of being on the Harbour itself and all the things that you see. When my dad came back from being
away as a pilot, he and my uncle moved to Maclean, a little town on the Clarence River which is
really where my boyhood was. No shoes, riding a bike to school, fishing by the Clarence River,
certainly no homework, kind of Huckleberry Finn boyhood - it was great. So when I was a little boy,
my parents had asked me about a place that I'd been, it was always easier for me to do a drawing of
something. I was a member of the Argonauts which a kind of a radio club. I sent them in a drawing
of a man on a boat. A fishing boat on the Clarence River with a couple of kind of punts behind it.
And to my great surprise, sent me back a gold star. So I figured, well, we're on to something here.
I really wasn't that crazy about school when I came down to the city. If you could ever locate any
of my old school books, you'd find lots of little drawings and little doodles in the margins and
thinks like that, that's what I liked doing best of all. I got the intermediate certificate and my
parents had enough faith in me to allow me to go to art school. So I started at 14.5 and then spent
almost 5 years studying art. So art schools in those days, the one that I went to anyway,
concentrated on composition and colour and life drawing and all of the classic things of an art
school which I think really are the bones of all artists' work. Towards the end of my time at art
school, I was lucky enough to be picked out to have what was a terrific job in a studio called
Smith & Julius. But I only lasted there for two weeks because I think they were paying me ?14 a
week and then a man offered me ?28 a week to work in an advertising agency as a young art director
and the big clincher was, I could paint my office whatever colour I wanted. It was great.

PETER THOMPSON: So what colour did you paint the office?

KEN DONE: I actually painted it purple which was pretty surprising in 1959.

PETER THOMPSON: Nobody else was doing purple, were they?

KEN DONE: No-one else was doing purple offices.

PETER THOMPSON: Being an only child, some only children do a lot of reading or spend a lot of time
by themselves. Was it like that for you?

KEN DONE: My mother was a very avid reader and also my mother had a subscription to Saturday
Evening Post, that American magazine. I can always remember the smell of opening that magazine. In
those days in Australia, magazines were printed in sepia. They didn't smell like American
magazines. When you open the Saturday Evening Post, there's this amazing smell and the amazing
colour. And when I think I think about it now, not just Norman Rockwell but there were some
fantastic illustrators who made covers and I used to be thrilled to imagine to see what was on the

PETER THOMPSON: Did school fence you in?

KEN DONE: It did. I didn't like school at all, actually. I was very, very good at gazing out the
window into the middle distance. I don't often tell people this, but on one school report, one
teacher had written, Ken is the most inventive student we've ever had, he has a wonderful mind. And
a couple of lines below, another teacher - and this is a bit embarrassing - had written, if I ever
had a son, I would wish him to be like Ken. In between, another teacher had written, this boy is a

PETER THOMPSON: Opinion's always been a bit divided about you.

KEN DONE: That's right. I should have learnt at that point in time, you can't please them all.

PETER THOMPSON: How did you persuade your parents that you should leave at 14.5? That was a young

KEN DONE: It's a good question because I'm sure I wouldn't have allowed my son or daughter to leave
school at 14.5 to go to art school. What I really wanted to see was a totally nude woman. I hadn't
seen one at that point in time and to my great surprise, when you go there, for a year you don't
have life classes that separates, you know, all the other guys. You have to draw from plastics
casts and things like that for a year.

PETER THOMPSON: You had to wait till you were 15?

KEN DONE: You had to wait till were 15.5 and I was still waiting.

PETER THOMPSON: In a curious sort of way, you flunked.

KEN DONE: I had already done slews of ads for the Australian Wine Board, I'd done the opening
titles to Bandstand, the television show, I'd done various logos and so I put for my final
exhibition, the work that I'd been doing. I eventually got in touch with them and they said that
they decided they couldn't judge my work because it wasn't like anybody else's and I'm sure they
were absolutely right. I understand that. You've got to judge apples against apples and I'd brought
a fruit shop. So, I understand that. But it annoyed me slightly.

PETER THOMPSON: How did you break the rules, though?

KEN DONE: I broke the rules by really not doing the set questions, I suppose.

PETER THOMPSON: Have you ever done the set questions in life?

KEN DONE: No. I suppose that's the problem, isn't it? You should do the set questions. Judy and I
first met in fact when I was at art school. Judy was a designer, she was great at fashion, she was
working as a model. I thought that she was the most beautiful girl that I'd ever seen. I think I
probably still think that. Once I got to London, I knew I was going to be there for a long time and
I had written to Judy and asked her to marry me. She was prepared to travel for six weeks with her
future mother-in-law on a boat through the Panama Canal to get to me. I can't be too bad. We were
married in 1965 in London. I was often able to take Judy on various modelling assignments. I was
painting at night, she was working sometimes in fashion. We were working together then as a team. I
worked for what was then the biggest advertising agency in London - J Walter Thompson. I had a
wonderful office, I had very, very nice accounts. I suppose the most memorable ones in a way is a
series of cinema commercials that we did for Campari. Written by Graeme Garden and Tim
Brooke-Taylor. We won the Cannes Gold Lion, which is, you know, not too bad. I was painting then,
all the time. I saw my first Matisse exhibition to see how the colour could be used, to see the
paintings close up, to see how you could use colour like musicians use music. It was certainly the
most influential exhibition I think I've ever seen in my life.

PETER THOMPSON: So what did Matisse teach you?

KEN DONE: Well, if you like colour, if you're a painter and if you like colour, Matisse was the one
who really showed you how joyous colour could be. It's interesting, isn't it, because there are no
new colours. The colours have always been there. But Matisse showed you that you could just be so
fresh and free and clear with them.

PETER THOMPSON: Did it sort of give you permission, did it?

KEN DONE: Well, for 50 years, I've been trying to make that feeling of the beach. It's quite hard
because the beach is a very cliched subject. Very cliched. And so I'm always trying to find fresh
and new ways of making that particular mark.

PETER THOMPSON: Of course you're mostly a coast hugger because there are reds like your Bungle
Bungles, but it's dominated by coastal.

KEN DONE: Look, I like all colours. They're just like notes in music. It's a matter of how you play
them, how you put them together.

PETER THOMPSON: What was the silliest piece of advertising you were involved in?

KEN DONE: The silliest piece? Oh gee, that's a good one. I was once doing some toilet paper, right?
And when they make toilet paper, they make it in really big rolls and the guy who was the marketing
director, he wanted the design to change like from shells eventually through to birds, eventually
to something else. So wherever the big rollers came down, you'd get a roll of bog paper with a
different pattern on it. I spent a lot of time on this drawing. It's very, very complex to make one
drawing seamlessly go from one to the other. And at the end I thought, people are going to wipe
their bum on this. I think I was on the way out then.

PETER THOMPSON: Hoped they're used as a standard.

KEN DONE: I think I didn't see the rest of my time in advertising. The first exhibition was in
1980. I'd probably been painting since I was 14 and I'd gone through all kinds of stages. I was
ready - I had a body of work to do and I imagined that I would spend the rest of my life being a
painter. It was a very successful exhibition. But the most successful part I suppose in the long
term was that I made 12 T-shirts to give to the press. This is the original Sydney Harbour T-shirt
or the same design, exactly the same drawing that was in the first exhibition and I guess in a
sense this is the thing the whole business was originally built on starting in 1980. This is a
small. I used to be able to fit into it. But I think I'm a bit bigger now. Maybe the business is
too. In a sense, that's where people's knowledge of my work started. With something that was cheap,
wearable and sought a wide audience. And everything else up the business track essentially came
from that principle. We got the lease of a little shop in The Rocks and then we had a few other
little products. Suddenly, very quickly, it kind of grew and there were licensing arrangements and
there was other shops and there were people that wanted it from other countries. The huge change in
the business came when Judy was involved and suddenly we became into a fashion business. It was the
young Japanese who really came first. The editor of the biggest magazine company asked me whether I
would do the cover of a particular new magazine. And Hanako magazine had my paintings on the cover
every week for 13 years. I've made paintings about haiku poetry on one hand in Japan, but I've also
done commercial things. I've done a beer can for Japan. I only did it because they said they were
going to use the first picked hops from Tasmania and they would call it Beer Nouveau. Well, that's
irresistible. I think they sold 130 million beer cans. All the time, I've really just been
painting. You work away in the studio by yourself. Make a good painting, the dog barks twice. This
is probably one of the best known paintings of mine from the early '80s and it was really when I
first got the studio down at Chinamans Beach. It's about all the things that I continue to love and
be interested in. The people on the beach, the birds, the frangipani, the paint itself, and here's
some postcards from various bits of travel that I've done. So in a sense, this picture sums up
pretty much all the things that I'm about.

PETER THOMPSON: When at the age of 40 you kind of left advertising, you started to exhibit. Do you
see yourself as a person that was going to paint on canvas and that'd be the end of it?

KEN DONE: I did. I thought I'd spend the rest of my life painting. But I was smart enough to know
that I needed to make some money. So I wasn't against doing things that sought a wide audience.

PETER THOMPSON: You pulled back from it, didn't you?

KEN DONE: We did. I was going to Osaka one day. I got out of the airport and I was driving to the
headquarters of this particular company that I was doing work for and I saw my name up on a shop
and I stopped the cab and I went in and I found that within the shop, there were lots of things
that were based on designs that we'd done. But they weren't really ours. Anytime that anything was
originally bright colour, people would think it had something to do with me and it didn't. So we
literally cut the business in half which was a considerable amount of money, and stopped the
licensing arrangements.

PETER THOMPSON: Quite a few people have been quite sniffy about you.

KEN DONE: Oh! Absolutely.

PETER THOMPSON: Edmund Capon says you were too much of a commercial enterprise to be taken
seriously as an artist.

KEN DONE: Yeah, Edmund said my work is too commercial to be taken seriously. Well, I make no bones
about some of it being commercial. It is in fact in a thing that we call a shop and so that should
give you a fair idea. I find it very bizarre you know, that you walk into the Art Gallery of NSW to
let's say a Monet exhibition or something like that and after seeing the paintings, I can walk out
and buy a Monet umbrella. I'm sure the art gallery has made some money out of that and the heirs to
the Monet estate who is probably a Japanese corporation have also made money out of it. But Mr
Monet himself unfortunately wasn't in the money, was he? I always wanted to have my own gallery to
have that control. I thought it's just like a chef having a restaurant and so I'm very lucky now to
have really quite a large gallery right beside the Harbour. I don't see the role of art to try and
shock people. Television can do that perfectly. I think the role of art is more like poetry, is to
give you pleasure over a long period of time. Should be more about joy. That's not to say that I
haven't made paintings about very personal things in mine or in our life. As a painter, sometimes
you have the opportunity to do more than simply a painting. I've been asked to do a BMW art car. I
was asked to do the entire design of a restaurant in the Powerhouse. You can find art in lots of
places other than a canvas in a gallery. One of the most interesting things was to design the
outside of the UNICEF pavilion at Expo in Brisbane, 1988. Then they asked me whether I would be
Australia's goodwill ambassador to UNICEF. There's still 14 million children dying each year...
Some of the things you learn is that people who have no food will still offer you something. You
understand how incredibly lucky Australians are and put so many things into perspective, really.
Drawing a UNICEF koala. I think one of the most important design things that we consider as a
nation is the flag. Australians have already decided that yellow is our colour and they'd like the
Southern Cross and the kangaroo or a combination of both. So there's a way of doing the Southern
Cross with the starts in yellow and that's I think, the strongest way that you can express the
Southern Cross within the rectangle of the flag. Or if it's the kangaroo and the Southern Cross, I
think that's a strong and powerful way of doing it as well.

PETER THOMPSON: Often the condoned images about sunniness, but there is a darker side to you.

KEN DONE: Oh! Darker side? I wouldn't venture there. It's a very dark side.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, your Anzac Day pictures. You paint for Anzac Days.

KEN DONE: I do. I always make a painting on Anzac Day and I've made paintings for instance called
Wind Surfing On Anzac Day which I think is only dark in the sense that it's a celebration of the
lifestyle that Australians enjoy because of the things that the Anzac or any war situation went

PETER THOMPSON: Last night I read an article which advised 10 things Ken Done should have done with
his money. But didn't. You know, lots of financial advice for you.

KEN DONE: I guess I'm pretty naive as far as money is concerned. Well, maybe that's not the word.
Cos I'm not entirely stupid. So, I did make a lot of money and we've got you know, sixpence
hopefully left, and I only found out by accident that my money was being used in ways that I
certainly had not expected to be used or asked to be used. I think it teaches you a lesson. You
should probably always see the money in some physical form. You should have it in your bath so you
could go in there in the afternoon and have a look at it. Because if it's just numbers on a bit of
paper, it's a bit too abstract. I think I might be going back to the stage where you wear it round
your neck in a big ring of money or something.

PETER THOMPSON: In a way, you've put your hand up and said, I'm guilty of breathtaking naivety.

KEN DONE: Absolutely. I put it up again. I put both hands up. I am guilty of breathtaking naivety
and trust. When I was in St Petersburg earlier this year, somebody said to me, do you realise
there's an article in the London Times about this amount of money? Well, I didn't realise it.
No-one wants to talk about these kinds of things. I don't mind being seen to be publicly foolish.
Anyway, it was my money. But maybe I haven't lost it, you see. I don't think we have. Judy and I
have been married for 43 years and we still enjoy working together. She looks at my paintings and
finds things within them that she wants to... Sometimes she'll ask me for something specific. For
the work that I do or that we do, our life and where we live is just one thing. We are very
fortunate to live in Chinamans Beach. It's a constant source of inspiration. The little beach house
that we have called The Cabin where I've made lots of paintings that come out of there. Even though
I've been painting here for years and years and years, you still have to come and look at it and
draw it and remind yourself of how the leaves are constructed and how the boats work and things
like that. The business has been going now for more than 25 years and so it's evolved really into a
family business. Oscar and Camilla, our son and daughter, run the business on a day-to-day basis.
The best thing that we've ever done is to understand how you give up power, how you allow the next
generation to come on. That's good, isn't it? Good colour. What do you think about that? We still
go to the office a couple of days a week and find out what they want us to do basically. Ha ha ha!
If the dogs like it, it must be good. We all work together in a building in Redfern. If they want
me in a meeting or if they want my opinion about something, I'm there. But most of the time, I'm
upstairs, painting. This is a New Guinea painting I've just started. But really today, I'm really
interested in getting back to a big beach painting. Make an umbrella on that. Feeling of a person,
you know. You see all these amazing shapes of people on the beach. Sometimes like a sunbaker. Got
to be in the mood to do this cos you've got to work reasonably fast. I've got plenty of spaces that
I work. Most Australian guys really want to have a shed. I never wanted to have a shed, I wanted to
have a cave. It's like the most primitive thing. It reminds you again of the simple act that what I
do as a painter in fact hasn't changed since caveman times. You look at something and you make a
mark on something.

PETER THOMPSON: Your life's brought you very considerable success. What do you put that down to?

KEN DONE: I have a wonderful family, I have a nice car, I can sit in front of the plane, there's
all of that. But the drive comes through failure.

PETER THOMPSON: Through failure?

KEN DONE: Yeah, because the painting's never quite good enough or you always think you could do it
better or... It's not like sport. It's not like Tiger Woods. Bang, he drops the putt, he has won.
That's it. Absolutely best in the world. I'm not unhappy by any means. In fact I'm probably happier
now than I've ever been in my life. But the drive is to get better at painting.

PETER THOMPSON: You're happy no doubt cos you're doing this interview.

KEN DONE: I'm thrilled. Of course. It's a very good point. You don't get to be on this show and do
this interview if you're you know, no-one.

PETER THOMPSON: (BOTH LAUGH) Ken, thank you very much. Thanks for coming on Talking Heads.