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Published  01/02/2000
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Ken Done - The Cabin

Ken Done – The Cabin

The Cabin studio at Mosman, overlooking Chinaman's Beach on Middle Harbour, was acquired by Ken Done in 1979. It has been the single most important factor in the development of Ken Done's painting in the 1980s. When Ken Done returned to Sydney from London in 1969 he set up a temporary studio under their house in Fairfax Road, Mosman. Then in the early 1970s he used a derelict building, a fisherman's cottage at the Southern end of Chinaman's Beach. Although he did not succeed in acquiring the Cabin until 1979, he knew of it from the age of fourteen, when he and his parents lived in Cremorne.

His first encounter with the building that subsequently became a most vital source of inspiration was when he and a friend took and alternative route from Cremorne to Balmoral Beach. Walking along the foreshore via Chinaman's Beach, Ken Done recalls his delight at discovering the small cottage:

"Suddenly, miraculously, underneath a huge tree was the most wonderful little building that I had ever seen. It was very much in the style of "The Wind in the Willows", but Australian. A house right by the edge of the water on the rocks, under a spreading Morton Bay Fig and a Camphor Laurel tree. It stood at the point where the rocks and sand and water and beach and land all met. A perfect holiday house or a fisherman's cottage."

By the time that Ken Done's studio, The Nook was demolished he knew the owner of The Cabin. The Cabin had been let to a series of tenants and Ken Done made it clear that he very much wanted to lease it to use as a studio. His childlike enthusiasm for the Cabin represents his joy and passion for the place. The components of the cabin studio represented perfection for Ken Done: and exquisite view over the Middle Harbour, marvellous trees and flowers, an exotic paradise. The view of the upper level of the Cabin from the wooden veranda provided Ken Done with further inspiration. It is a view onto a myriad of light effects, the endless patterning of boats, the drama of storms, the power and beauty in nature all from a secure vantage point. In the area surrounding the house, he and Judy have created an oasis of garden which Ken has painted constantly and where in the early years there he shared with his family at weekends.

Ken Done's initial period at the Cabin had involved a great many perceptual drawings and detailed paintings:

"After my experimentation with abstract styles, I needed to be somewhere as concrete as the Cabin to make the paintings which some people read as naif, but which I still see as sophisticated in that they chose to explore, understand and express each aspect of my visual world, the world that I could see."

In drawings such as a Basket of Shells, 1979, Ken Done is carrying out the visual research for subsequent works. The First Fish Caught at the Cabin, 1979, catches the pleasure of being by the water; he also felt that it was right to celebrate this perfect silver bream in visual terms before it was barbecued for lunch. Helmut Shell, 1979 similarly to Basket of Shells 1979, reveals Ken Done's fine draughtsmanship combined with patience. Australia Day, 1980 was exhibited in the Sulman Prize. In such works, Ken Done concentrates on the painterly patterns of the figures or objects that fill the beach.

Looking onto Chinaman's Beach and taking on the full vista across the Middle Harbour jostling with the action and movement of boats these works celebrate life and capture the energetic passion of Sydney Harbour. Incorporating also the plant forms from this garden (Morning Glory, Frangipani, Hibiscus) as a border with the wooden trellis work of the verandah, Ken Done succeeds in conveying a scene that pulsates with life. The energy inherent in Done's approach to art parallels his passion for Sydney Harbour as the single greatest inspiration for his work. Chinaman's Beach from the Cabin, 1981 evokes the optimism and generosity of spirit that characterises all of his work.

Sunday, 1982 captures Ken Done's early preoccupations:

"This was one of the early series of paintings done when I first moved in (to the Cabin). What many people may not understand is that I deliberately chose to paint this picture in a kind of naive style. I simply wanted to show in a very straightforward way how much I loved all of the things in the studio. The view from the window, the pattern of the clouds, the Frangipani, the paint, the palette, the shells, the postcards, the pattern of the people on the beach and of course the myriad of colours and shapes of the sailboats on the harbour. I still work from this yellow table. The frangipanis each summer bloom again and in some ways I am constantly repainting this particular scene. The paintings from 'The Cabin' now have evolved to a more complex stage, but I hope they all convey this essential feeling I have for my environment."

Paintings such as Wet Sunday, 1984 and Looking East 1989, run counter to the optimistic, colourist works done at the cabin studio in the early 1980s and for which Ken Done is well known. Painted on overcast days these works express the reflective poetic response of the artist, who as a painter explores the wide range of mood and visual phenomena of the Harbour around the year. It is not possible to view these works without recalling Turner, Whistler, or in Sydney itself, Lloyd Rees. All are painters greatly admired by Ken Done, whose influence he readily acknowledges.

Ken Done has always drawn inspiration from music in his painting, and feels a particular affinity with Jazz, especially in the music of his trumpeter friend James Morrison, and the lyrical tones of Ray Charles. Ray Charles at the Cabin 1985, presents his musical hero as a larger than life figure at the piano, alluding to the manner in which music can fill physical and emotional space. He seeks colours and shapes that run closely parallel to the musical experience offered by Ray Charles. Indeed, as this particular painting and others dedicated to Ray Charles confirm, Done makes numerous connections between painting and music. Here the keys of the piano, musical notes, are painted as tubes of paint, colour. Ken Done reveals a boyish adulation for his heroes, mentors, and muses, alive or dead, so that Ray Charles, Matisse, Nolan, Lloyd Rees, Turner, Bonnard, as well as his parents, wife and children, inhabit the studio in various forms. Books, photographs, postcards, compact disks, help to create a microcosm for the artist, a world within a world.

Here essentially is a place in which privacy and the sources of creative inspiration are jointly maintained. Done paints beautiful images in celebration of life. Yet he remains acutely aware of the willing sacrifice that his father's generation made in World War II, to enable Australians to live and prosper as they do today. To this end, he privately paints a special tribute each Anzac day to all those who gave up their lives for liberty and democracy. In Windsurfing on Anzac Day 1983 he confronts the carnage and destruction that Australian servicemen suffered and witnessed during this war. Painting from the Cabin on Anzac Day 1996, is made up of a group of six small paintings. Ken Done uses the wooden trellis on the cabin verandah to frame images of boats on intensely coloured seas and with passionately depicted skies to establish metaphors for human struggle towards the ultimate triumph of harmony and peace.

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