Art, the Masses, and How to Swing It

Conni Gordon would like to teach the world to paint in perfect harmony

"Look, I'm not kidding myself or anyone else," Gordon admits, sitting down at a table in her studio. "I'm not saying it's the finest of art. But to make a picture that's recognizable in minutes makes people believe in themselves. For the most part, people are so sensitive about their art that if someone says, 'That doesn't look like a tree,' they stop. They think they have to be a genius from the first or they're no good.

"If you paint a picture in minutes, it isn't going to be the greatest picture in the world. But what it does is open the heart and mind to self-esteem."

The original stage and dance floor from Bill Jordan's Bar of Music (the building also went through incarnations as a church and a gay nightclub) are still the centerpieces of Gordon's large, open studio, a room that exhibits the comfortable disarray that can be achieved only through time. Dozens of boxes containing Conni Gordon Method books and painting materials are stacked all over the place. Bulging file cabinets line one wall. Rough sketches, color charts, and photographs of horses and koala bears cover a large metal desk where Gordon has been working on an animal drawing course for Dade County schoolchildren. Paints and brushes lay haphazardly on a table in the center of the room next to an enormous black-and-white cat named Lizzie, who's lounging in a cardboard box. Framed paintings of lions, parrots, babies, clowns, street scenes, and landscapes, many now faded with age, crowd the walls. Among them hangs a large portrait of Gordon as a young woman. The mirrored stage holds a display of painted handicrafts and household items, including an eye-catching beige toilet seat decorated with a woodsy scene and the word his.

"Did you take a look at that toilet seat?" Gordon inquires enthusiastically as she opens a photo album marked "Conni Gordon With Celebrities." She leafs through the book, pointing out a picture of herself painting with Steve Allen, both of them wearing smocks emblazoned with an oriental flower design. And here she is with comedian Morey Amsterdam, actor Tony Randall, dancer Gwen Verdon, and Argentine hunk Fernando Lamas. Gordon with Oprah Winfrey. With Henry Kissinger. With Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, each holding a gilt-framed landscape. In several pictures, a grinning Gordon gives the thumbs-up sign or holds her arms above her head like a winning prizefighter. Pictures of the Guinness induction ceremonies appear toward the back of the album: In one photo, Gordon positions the world's longest cucumber at a slight angle below the waist of the world's tallest man.

"That's an example of the kind of humor I use in my demonstrations," she says, giggling.

She turns to a second scrapbook, this one filled with photos and flyers from corporate conventions at which she has been a featured speaker. They show hundreds of men and women in business suits seated side by side, furiously covering their small canvas squares with paint. Another photo depicts a group of Chinese executives proudly gripping their renditions of an oriental garden.

In the late 1970s, as corporate human resource departments began paying increased attention to their employees' mental health, Gordon discovered a new market for her four-step method A 1) outline, 2) undercover, 3) overcover, 4) detail A with IBM, Northern Telecom, and other companies forking out an average of $20,000 per session for her "therapeutic" painting demonstrations. Each executive participant takes home his or her painting as a souvenir.

"They come to a meeting on creativity, and they end up doing it themselves. I just don't talk about creativity, I prove it," Gordon emphasizes. "These major companies are booking me because it's important to be creative in today's world. Now that we have the computer, somebody has to feed it."

Gordon argues that painting a simple landscape can release the inner child in everyone, increasing confidence and productivity in all aspects of people's lives. A similar theory was popularized by Dr. Betty Edward's 1976 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Gordon scowls at the mention of Edward's name.

"I was working with those ideas way before that book came out," she scoffs. "Painting a picture upside down and all that. It's actually a matter of applying both sides of the brain. It's really about learning to see more, and realizing that everything is connected to art.

"People always say they have two left hands, or they can't draw a straight line with a ruler," continues Gordon. "But if you give people a way of understanding, they will develop themselves. How far they go is unimportant. What it does is make people believe in themselves. They can do more than they think if they're led into it easily, with fun and humor. This is the basis on which I conduct my convention presentations."

Richard Israel, a Miami-based lecturer and writer, whose book Brain Sell will be published in England later this year, has teamed up with Gordon on the corporate self-improvement circuit. The two will appear together at business machinery giant Hewlitt-Packard's upcoming convention in Boblingen, Germany, where Gordon will give a painting class and Israel will deliver a supplementary lecture on brainpower development.

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