Poet Harry Donnelly and artist Keith Blake’s inexplicable ‘connection’

Three images of drawings

Harry Donnelly and Keith Blake have known each other for four decades, but it’s only in the past year that their connection has reached a synchronous charm.

Harry, who’s based on the Sunshine Coast, discovered he could write poetry in his 40s, while Brisbane-based Keith learned of his drawing ability three years ago.

Coincidentally, the men, now aged 72, were born on the same day in 1950 — Harry in Australia and Keith 16 hours later in the UK.

They first crossed paths on the footy field when they played rugby league against each other in the 1980s.

But over the last year their paths have entwined as Keith has come to meticulously illustrate Harry’s poems.

After receiving a poem, Keith explains that he’ll read it in the afternoon, re-read it, sleep on it and wake up with a “light bulb” moment of what to draw.

“Funnily enough, Harry says that a lot of the times when he sees the drawing, it’s how he imagined it to be drawn,” Keith says.

Brisbane-based artist Keith Blake (left) has been illustrating Harry Donnelly’s poems for a year.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

“I don’t know how that works, but there’s some sort of connection that I interpret Harry’s work sort of the way he’s written it.”

The men have written and illustrated about 50 poems so far, and hope one day to publish a collection of their work.

How Harry discovered poetry

Back in 1996, Harry was in his 40s, still playing footy and wasn’t into reading poetry.

So it caught him off guard when one night he woke up and felt compelled to write a poem for his best friend at the time.

He wrote 25 poems that week and 300 in the first year.

“It just sort of comes out of the blue for me,” Harry said.

“I had no idea what was happening and I was really embarrassed. I didn’t tell anyone for quite a while.”

Man in his 70s with a pen and paper on a deck, with greenery and chooks in the background
Harry has now written more than 2,200 poems in 26 years.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

Harry has written about 600 poems for birthdays, tributes and obituaries, and more than 1,500 about current events, issues and life observations.

The content “comes at any time”, but often it is in the early hours of the morning.

“I get into a beautiful place when I’m there and it’s only for a few minutes, like half an hour … I can’t explain it. It’s just like a lovely, calm space.”

Harry hand-wrote his first 1,000 poems, then learned to compose them on the computer.

His poems have been shared with ABC listeners on the Sunshine Coast for more than 10 years, with his work also published on social media alongside Keith’s illustrations.

How Keith discovered drawing

Aside from history-focused art lessons in high school and dabbling in the odd cartoon sketch, Keith has had limited exposure to art and “never thought I could do detailed drawings”.

But during a world cruise in 2019, he bought some pencils.

“There were a few spots where we’ve got five days at sea between ports before you get to Europe … so I picked up some graphite pencils and a pad and I started sketching the ship’s crew.”

Man drawing a portrait of another man using colored pencils
Keith says his portraits have raised more than $12,000 for the homeless charity, Beddown.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

The crew loved the sketches, some passengers asked for theirs to be done, too, and when they arrived home, Keith wasn’t ready to part with the pencils so he signed up to an online art course.

He has since completed “a couple of hundred” sketches and won first prize in the “mixed medium” category at this year’s Brisbane Exhibition.

Keith does not sell his work, but gives them away or donates the art to charities including Beddown, a Brisbane-based charity for the homeless, Townsville’s Cowboys Foundation and the Sea Turtle Alliance which works alongside the Mon Repos Turtle Centre.

Drawing of a turtle in colored pencils
Keith’s drawing raised more than $2,000 for a charity that assists the Mon Repos Turtle Centre.(Supplied: Keith Blake)

The pair’s ‘lucky’ connection

The pair cherishes the mateship and rapport they’ve developed this year over their carefully crafted words and detailed illustrations.

After more than 20 years of writing, Harry said it was “brilliant” to see his poetry come to life in pictures.

Meanwhile, Keith said he was “lucky” to have stumbled upon his drawing ability and Harry’s poems at this point in his life.

“It keeps me sort of switched on and … sort of bonded us a bit closer together and we talk a lot more often now than we did before.

“It’s terrific … that two old fellas like us can have such a positive effect out there in the wider world.”

Collage of drawings of an older woman, horse and man smiling
Keith’s portrait of a homeless woman won at this year’s Ekka. He donated a portrait of the late Paul Green to the Cowboys Foundation.(Supplied: Keith Blake)

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