The Influence

The ‘wholesome and simple’ art of Ken Done and his unpretentious approach is an inspiration to this artist and former MasterChef star. By Kate Holden.

Poh Yeow

A man with a grey moustache and wearing a dotted blazer stands at an art exhibition with his ams crossed.
Artist Ken Done (above) and chef and artist Poh Yeow (below).
Credit: Gallery One (above), Gretl Watson-Blazewicz (below)

Poh Yeow is a household name and multi-hyphenate creative: a cook, television presenter, author, make-up artist, actor and visual artist. She is known for her exhibitions of paintings, many of which include a totemic figure, a stylised character called The Girl. Born in Malaysia, she arrived in Australia the day after her ninth birthday and broke into public fame on the first season of Network 10’s MasterChef in 2009. Since then she has hosted various television series, including the ABC’s Poh’s Kitchen (2010-12) and Poh & Co (2015) on SBS. Her new show, Adam & Poh’s Great Australian Bites (SBS), has just begun airing.

Yeow’s paintings have been exhibited at Hill Smith Gallery in Adelaide and Libby Edwards Galleries in Melbourne and she was part of Illuminate in Adelaide this year. She chose to speak about Ken Done, whose studio and work features in episode seven of the new television series.

You’re an introvert, and it seems like your art is you speaking to yourself very intimately. One of your iconic images is one you call The Girl. Who is she to you?

I feel like my art is the thing that transformed me as a kid, because I was so painfully shy, and felt so out of place. It’s the thing of not feeling the part, not looking the part, or sometimes looking the part but not fitting in. There was a whole series I did of The Girl in traditional Chinese landscapes, and they all have titles like Lost and Lost in the Motherland. She’s got a Scottie dog with her, running through the landscape, and he’s completely out of place. There were feelings inside me I didn’t know how to bring out, so she served as a mirror for what I wanted to see.

Drawing, I could block out everything – I felt like a little god. I had a white piece of paper and I could bring something to life. I remember thinking, This has chosen me, this is going to be my path: I don’t know what form it will take. But there was no question in my mind that it would be what I was going to do for a living. Making art. I do find beauty easily. I feel like it’s my duty to acknowledge that thing, whatever it is.

Then when I did start to paint and exhibit my work, I started with The Girl because she was an amalgamation of all the things I hated physically about myself as a kid. I used to use her almost as a meditation and a way of going, “Do you like that face?” It was a question. It wasn’t because of the way I got treated. When I first landed in Australia, a girl and her little crew took me under her wing right away. I was never made to feel on the outer. So my first experiences here were amazing. It took me till my mid-30s to realise that feeling, it’s completely from the inside, it’s never from the outer. Wherever I am, I’ve always felt that: I’ve always felt beamed in from somewhere else. Having said that, Australia is absolutely the place where I felt I needed to be.

I painted The Girl in a toddler state for a long time and one thing people noticed right away looking at the work I’d painted this year, they go: “She’s grown up!” Yeah! I didn’t think she ever would, it just happened. I really like her now.

What was it like, hanging out with Ken Done for the television show?

It was so delightful, he was so generous and beautiful. It was just before I was going to exhibit. I thought, I’m going to pick this guy’s brain, I’m going to soak up every minute of his time. He didn’t get a rest! I made him go through all his drawers: “What’s in there?” I was like a little kid, pestering him the whole time.

We got him to design a cake. He looked at it for maybe a minute, and goes, “Okay. This is what I think we should do.” It was the shape of Australia with a smiley face on it. That’s it. But he was so prescriptive, about where the eyes would be, the rosy cheeks, the shape of the smile; he was very specific about that. I saw a man who is incredibly good at what he does – obviously – but who still has so much of that childlike joy with regard to colour and form. Even the way we applied the icing – he was like, “No, no, no, like this.” It was so simple and joyous. I thought, That’s what his work is about.

It spoke so much to my youth. He was huge in the ’80s when I was in school, and we all had Ken Done bathers and wore Ken Done T-shirts, and had Ken Done pencil cases – he was everywhere. I remember after that flurry of Ken Done mania there was this really quiet spot in his life, but I noticed that he just kept on going. And I love that about his story, that he never let the naysayers tell him he was too commercial. So it’s affirming to me to meet him.

And in his back-of-house, in the office area and the gallery, there were these tiny Yakult bottles from Japan with his little koalas doing somersaults on them. There’s so much snobbery in the art world to the point where a lot of art can be alienating. I love the fact that Ken has his art on Yakult bottles! He is open to making his art accessible on so many levels.

Done spoke once about how he wants to communicate with viewers. “There are no rules,” he said, “and if there are rules, then you may as well break them.”

Yes! That absolutely punches across in his work. I love anyone who likes to challenge norms within subcultures. With art it’s all about personal expression but then people tell you how you shouldn’t personally express yourself. Well, no. That completely defies the purpose of that creativity. To play to that is pretentious and I hate that more than anything.

I’ve left the gallery system and started an online shop, making prints now. Because I had so many uni students, people that age, coming to me saying, “I wish I could afford your work, but I just can’t.”

When art is done with enjoyment it fizzes in front of you. Done said once his work is “highly decorative and sweet painting. Like a sundae. Art to eat with your eyes.”

I love that! So unpretentious. There’s such a thing about art needing to be serious. When you see footage of him painting he’s incredibly contemplative, very deliberate with the marks he makes. You know he’s in a flow state, meditating with colour. When people don’t think that’s good enough – I don’t get that. You’re not supposed to enjoy it, you’re not supposed to make money out of it, that’s commercial – well, it would be handy if you can put food on the table!

He has such a clear idea of what he wants his work to be, and it’s simple, and what he wants to put across is wholesome and simple. Why can’t art be like that? When you see the stuff in the shops and in the retrospective book, you go, wow, this guy’s a stayer. He’s relevant again – he’s doing these amazing collaborations with Romance Is Born and back in fashion again. That’s what it is, in the end. It’s about your inner world and staying true to yourself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 26, 2023 as "Poh Ling Yeow".

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