Over the coming weeks we'll be sharing a bunch of interviews and texts from a range of cross-generational visual artists and arts workers. We've asked people to think about their teachers and lessons learned in their early career. First up is Ken Done


Ken Done’s first exhibition was in Sydney in 1980. He has since had over 50 solo shows in Australia, Europe, Japan & the USA. He spoke to McPhee about being smitten for Miss Cashell in Katoomba, Saturday morning art classes, his first art book and drinking Cherry Brandy at East Sydney Tech.

MCPHEE: Was there a moment in your childhood when you realised that painting and drawing was absolutely important to you?

KD: When I was a little boy, around the age of 5, it was much easier for me to do a small drawing to explain things to my parents rather than using words. I lived in a small country town and had to spend quiet a deal of time on my own using my imagination. 

MCPHEE: Where did you go to high school? Did you take art classes? What do you remember about this time?

KD: I went to high school at Katoomba High and I remember with a great fondness my first art teacher. Her name was Miss Cashell and I'm sure I was completely smitten by her looks and the attention that she would give to my work. 

When we moved to Mosman when I was around 12 or 13 I was very disappointed to find that at Mosman High they did not teach art to boys. Nowadays Mosman High has an extremely good reputation for art from both boys and girls but in those days doing art was not considered the right thing for a young man to be involved in. I convinced the school that I could go and look at art books and they agreed but said I would have to give up one class to do it. I suggested algebra and to this day I have never had any form of connection. A few years ago when I was in Kazakhstan I came across a very imposing statue of the man who invented algebra. I couldn't help but kick it.

‘Sunrise' by Ken Done aged 7

‘Sunrise' by Ken Done aged 7

'sunset' by Ken Done aged 7

'sunset' by Ken Done aged 7

MCPHEE: I read that you left high school at the age of 14 and a half to study at East Sydney Tech. What drew you to the school and how was this decided?

KD: There were no artists in our family so it was whilst taking a Saturday morning art class in Gore Hill when I was around 13 that the then teacher suggested that I should go to East Sydney Tech (now the National Art School.) The entry examination was purely practical, no theory and no art speak. I was accepted and it was a turning point in my career. 

MCPHEE: Did you have a particular art teacher that inspired you and encouraged you to pursue a career in the arts? Or, a family member?

KD: At East Sydney Tech I had some wonderful teachers, Herbie Badham, Lynden Dadswell and Godfrey Miller to name a few. I called everybody Mister and we were a pretty studious lot. Rock and Roll had just started, drugs had not yet reared their ugly head. I could quiet easily get out of control on a schooner of beer or a couple of glasses of cherry brandy and lemonade. Gentler times. 

ken done,  Night Dive

ken done, Night Dive

MCPHEE: Can you tell us about an early artwork that you made during your teens?

KD: I had the opportunity during one Christmas holiday to work for one of Australia's great art directors of the time. A drawing that I did for an ABC radio program appeared on a billboard about a week after I'd designed it. I was thrilled and it taught me something about the reality of design in the market place.

MCPHEE: Did you meet any established artists or visit a working studio when you were a teenager? How did they impress you?

KD: I met a number of artists during those years and of course as a young student you are impressed by everything you see and feel and experience during those times. It is only a lifetime later that you understand which ones were wankers and which ones were workers.

MCPHEE: Can you tell us about the first artists or artworks that you admired at an early age?

KD: I remember when I was around 11 I purchased a small yellow covered book of the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. I still have the book and those early images of his work. Matisse, Bonnard, and Picasso are works that drive artists throughout the world.

Thank you to Ken for taking the time to share your experiences as a young art student. Thanks also to his assistant and Harvey Galleries. Ken's latest show has recently wrapped up but works are still available at Harvey Galleries.

Ken Done,  Yellow Beach

Ken Done, Yellow Beach