Making It: Jake Donlen

Runamuk Visual’s Jack Donlen got arthritis when he was fresh out of school, putting a cramp in his surf style. But that didn’t stop him from admiring the beauty of the ocean and the talents of his friends. So he picked up a camera and started shooting.

His skillful filmmaking landed him in-house at Billabong and that’s where all the details started to fall into place. Jack is also a painter, bringing a street art-style to surf boards and soon a clothing line.

He talked to us about how he got here, the projects he’s working on, his dark artistic style and the important influences of his wife, son and mates.

Tell us a little bit about your creative background. How did you get into filmmaking? And also your painting/drawing/art? Any higher education for either or just learn as you go?

To put it simply, I was raised by hippies.

My mum and dad are/were super creative (my dad passed away). Mum was a fashion designer in her day and has always steered clear of the 9-to-5 way of life. My dad took a pretty standard path in his working life as a tradesman but always inspired me just by the scribbles he’d do while on the phone or sitting at the table, he was also a very good surfer, one of the old boys of Noosa and still to this day one of the nicest styles I have ever seen.

They weren’t big on giving me toys and stuff. Instead I always had pencils and crayons, Playdough and paper. That’s where it began I guess. Through school I ditched art as I clashed with the teacher and ended up just surfing with my mates every chance I got. I never went down the art class path again. I’d never picked up a camera or really cared too much for it at this point, although I watched Focus, The Moment and Searching for Tom Curren religiously as a kid (Tom Curren is and will always be the best surfer to me. Actually I like, Andy too).

When I left school and started working, things started crashing down a bit. I got arthritis in my wrists and had a lot of trouble surfing because of it. I threw in my apprenticeship as a plumber and after realizing how well some of my mates were surfing, I started filming them and our day-to-day shenanigans.

I took the arthritis as a positive and just made the most of what was happening. At the time the Sunshine Coast was a black hole in the surf media. Now some of the worlds best come from here. Julian, Wade, Coleborn, Brady, Lee Wilson and a mile of young kids following their footsteps. These were the crew I hung out and shot with, my mates. I made a few little local films and eventually got picked up by Billabong as their in-house filmmaker and yeah, thats where my real apprenticeship started.

How does one help the other? Or are they two separate mind spaces for you?

I really don’t know. I would love to bring art to life in my films but that is a whole other level in filmmaking, one I have no idea about.

Generally I think they sit beside each other, both sitting in a dark little place with the odd shards of light beaming through. I’m into low key and raw film production. Good surfing, good music and enough lifestyle to portray the subject in the right light is all you need, the rest is fluff, when done right it can be beautiful, but fluff nevertheless.

My art is quite the opposite, it’s kind of a mess. I guess the difference comes from the fact that I currently make a living from media production so there is always a few guidelines associated with working for clients or companies. My days as a freelance filmmaker are on hold until I own my house and my family is set and secure. Then I might find myself in a position where I can afford to start taking risks with film concepts.

The best idea I have ever had is sitting idle in my brain as I cant find the right ‘funder’ to back it…the idea needs to be supported by someone who has no need for control as the project and is exactly the opposite…I don’t know where these people went in this industry, I’m sure it was once entirely made up of these sort of characters.

Was there a point in your life that you knew you were going to be an artist? And what do you think have been some of the keys to you having a ‘successful’ career as an artist?

Success means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To me, having you guys at Korduroy recognize me as an actual artist at all is humbling. I just paint my mates’ boards and a few canvases. My son is my success. My wife, my mates and my family are where I am happiest and I guess that’s a success.

I guess as far as a normal, (non-hippy) answer goes, haha…I keep a good eye on the world around me, but I’ve never really jumped onboard the trends that pass by. It must be a full time job for the guys who do that shit. I see crews who literally ride every different trend that blows through, good on ’em, to each their own, but I’d be confused by now if I were in their shoes.

I paint what I like, and sometimes the people around me like it too. When that someone is someone I admire it makes me feel good. I have one mate who I have looked up to as an artist and a human since working at Billabong. I don’t see him much but social media keeps us linked up. One day he commented on a piece of mine, and to have that one guy, who’s art was the best I’d seen, say that to me, that was rad. That kept me going.

What about some of the difficulties you’ve had to overcome? And how did you manage to do so?

Haha! Well…when I was 25 I had a massive cardiac arrest. I had to be brought back from the dark eight times, to the point where the medics were ready to give up. The story’s been told a few too many times so I’ll leave it at that. But yeah, knowing I almost was gone inspires me to never give up on what I love.

Any common themes that run through your art?

Contrast. Generally more on the dark side though. When I try to paint ‘happy’ stuff I always come undone. I like dark stuff.

You have your hands in a number of things: films, art, blogging, and I am sure there are more. But now that you are a father, things have surely shifted. What are some of the things you do to maintain the balance between work, family, and fun?

Finding that balance was easy. My boy comes first. He is the greatest thing in my life. Being a good father and providing for your family is a man’s role on earth. It’s to a point where my time is mainly spent with him just hangin’ out. Just watching the way he goes about each day and seeing him learning life is more inspiring than anything I have come across before. I just followed my heart on that.

What is the most important thing for you in any job that you take whether it be art or filmmaking?

Passion. Love it or leave it.

Do you have any particular project that you are most proud of up to this point in your life?

Creative Destruction was without a doubt the best project I have done. For Billabong to show me the faith they did was something that I will forever be grateful for, and to get to do it with one of my best mates was even better. It was an idea Wade and I joked about. Then it happened and we got to do some cool shit. Being an old metal head as a kid and getting to hang with Metallica, you know that stuff just doesn’t happen. But to then go and see what the ocean and surfing has done for 50 Mexican orphans…that was amazing, that’s when you feel like you’re doing something for the right reasons. When you get to see that there is beauty left in this world. Stuff like that is what made CD special, and we had a hell of a good time in the process. I miss it sometimes.

Anything in the pipeline that is getting you excited that we should be getting excited about as well?

I bought a screen printing business about 5 years ago and I’ve finally got a little studio in my backyard so I’m hoping to have a small range of clothing available by Christmas.

I’m a little excited about that.

For more of Jake’s work, check out his website at http://www.runamukvisuals.com