Sydney Harbour – a vista of indisputable beauty awash with glittering blue, cradled by the Bridge and Sydney Opera House, and dotted with bobbing sea craft. A radiant vision of a paradise city, it has been magnetic to travellers, and an enduring inspiration to artists alike. Of all the painted Sydney scenes, perhaps Ken Done’s is the most famous, the most recognised or the most iconic. Done’s harbour has been applied to all manner of items over the 40 or so years of his artistic career, including bed linen, tea towels, T-shirts, ties and scarf squares. This year, however his hyper-bright panorama formed the backdrop of the Griffin Theatre Company’s rendition of David Williamson’s 1987 satire, Emerald City.
“I’m very fortunate to live beside Sydney Harbour so the beach and the harbour is a constant source of inspiration for me,” Done says. “We travel a lot. I just had a big exhibition in Korea; we’ve also just come back from doing a trip from Copenhagen to Alaska through the Northwest Passage. As a painter there are always things that are source of inspiration for you. But the bulk of my pictures are about how lucky we all are to live in Australia.”
Emerald City follows the trials of a screenwriter from Melbourne, recently relocated to Sydney – a love-hate letter to the city from the position an outsider. Done was responsible for the design of the poster for the premiere season of the play in 1987, which was produced by The Sydney Theatre Company and performed at the Drama Theatre in the Opera House. When asked what drew him back to the play this time around, he says it was the enthusiasm of the Griffin Theatre’s artistic director, Lee Lewis, to use his work. “I was very pleased to be asked to do it,” he says. “[Lewis] didn’t even realize that I’d worked on the first showing of the play.”
The set is built up from one of Done’s late 1990s gouache paint and oil crayon harbour pieces. A burnt orange sky hovers above a purple bay in Done’s ever familiar style, blown up and stretched floor to ceiling to fit the theatre walls. “It’s very important that the set sets the feeling for the play,” Done explains. “This was still very much about the brightness and optimism of Sydney.”
Done studied art at East Sydney Tech (now, the National Art School), and worked at advertising agencies in New York and London before returning to his sparkling harbour city. “I got to the ripe old age of 35 and decided I didn’t want to do that anymore,” he recalls pensively. “I simply wanted to devote my life to painting. So I was 40 when I had my first exhibition, which was in 1980.”Set design aside, Done doesn’t look to be considering an artistic retirement any time soon. He continues to exhibit new work internationally, has an exhibition opening in Perth this month and another in Japan next year. “We’ve simplified the business,” he says in reference to his gallery in The Rocks and ubiquitous art merchandise enterprise. “I just keep painting. And hopefully I’m getting better at it.”
While Done’s work might be dismissed by the highbrow for being over commodotised, and then consequently too naff – he remains fairly indifferent. “I just wanted to spend my life as a painter. I didn’t set out to get into any of the businesses that we did, they were simply opportunities that existed because of people’s response to the work.”
As for what’s on the horizon, Done ‘s ambitions are with his painting. “In a recent interview I said that I’d really like to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale,” he smiles, pausing for a moment to think before continuing. “It would be wonderful to have the opportunity to make paintings that show the rest of the world how beautiful Australia is. I think at the time in which we live art should be more like poetry, it should give you pleasure. Television can shock us each night in our living rooms, but art and the theatre is about entertainment.”
Emerald City is showing at Griffin Theatre until December 6.