Art, the Masses, and How to Swing It

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

"Conni's program offers a tremendous learning tool about how the brain works," Israel asserts. "One problem that companies have is how to unleash employees' brainpower. How do they find new ways to tackle old problems? This shows them how to do it, using the pattern of Conni's four-step method."

One local resident who has participated in Gordon's classes attests to the personal rewards of completing a painting. Elayne Weisburd, a former Miami Beach commissioner who attended one of Gordon's classes with her husband, had a typical reaction: "Conni has brought such joy and happiness to so many people by making them feel important to themselves. We sat there one night and became artists. We still have the paintings, and they're as good as a Renoir or a Monet as far as we're concerned."

Stanley Burns stands beside an easel in Gordon's studio, holding his "little girl," Suzy, a blond ventriloquist's dummy wearing a blue dress. Suzy holds a paintbrush in her hand. "I did this painting, I did this all by myself," Suzy shrieks, tapping the brush hard against the landscape propped up on the stand. "I did this! I did this!"

"Oh shut up, just keep quiet now," scolds Burns, shaking his head and rolling his eyes upward.

Sitting on nearby chairs are two of Burns's "young men": Bruce, who wears tinted glasses and suede high-heeled boots, and Cecil, dressed in a velvet jacket and short pants. Bruce poses with a large painting.

Known as the Magical Ventriloquist, Burns has been a friend of Gordon's ever since she was a young girl. Her father, Jack Gordon, served as the ventriloquist's theatrical agent, booking him into nightclubs along the East Coast in the Thirties and Forties.

A few years ago Burns and Conni put together an act they have taken to community centers and senior citizens' homes around the country. While she teaches Suzy how to paint, the audience follows along.

"The idea was that even a dummy could paint," explains Burns, who appears to be close to 80 years old (like Gordon, Burns invokes "the show business thing" explanation as he declines to tell his age). "She taught little Suzy how to paint all right. Suzy just takes a brush and splashes it all over!"

"Oh we really had them laughing with that one," Gordon recalls. "I remember we did it once for a group of magicians. They loved it."

A distinguished vaudeville veteran who still performs occasionally, Burns is seeking a publisher for his recently completed history of ventriloquism. The aging performer suffers from health problems, which have brought him to Miami Beach for a two-month sabbatical.

"Oh, I remember when you were just a little brat running around with a paintbrush," Burns says in a hoarse voice.

"I was not!" Gordon shoots back with a laugh. "I was playing piano as background for your act. The important thing of all this was that I had the right parents," she adds wistfully, launching into a description of her family's Hartford, Connecticut, home, where her father's clients, including Burns, often spent the night on their way to performances in New York. "I'd wake up with people singing in one room and doing acrobatics and juggling in another. Until I was a teenager, I thought everybody lived that way."

Gordon brings a vaudevillian flair to the visual arts. Like a magician performing tricks, she makes painting look easy, and like an illusionist, she accents each brushstroke with a smile and a flourish. Fueled by an Ethel Merman-esque gusto and brandishing an optimism worthy of the unsinkable Molly Brown, Gordon hawks art as creative therapy, a sort of miracle tonic for loneliness and low productivity. "The techniques are based on clever ways of getting results," she explains, "and that's just show biz. I've taken art and made it entertainment."

Her fans agree. "We have these exhibits, but the main thing was for Conni to come down to the museum and do a demonstration," declares Edward Meyer, the archivist at Ripley's corporate headquarters in Orlando. "She had everybody paint a picture A the president of the company, even the mayor. I painted one, too. She is a wonderful, wonderful entertainer."

Starving highbrow artists may seem more noble, but Conni Gordon's method has made money. Back in 1959 Gordon patented her four-step guaranteed painting technique, and she has authored eighteen instructional booklets, which by her own account have sold over seventeen million copies. Published in the Sixties and Seventies but still available by mail order, they have titles such as You Can Paint a Picture, Oil Painting Made Easy, and You Can Water Color in Minutes. Gordon appears on the cover of each, her face in a cameo portrait shaped like an artist's palette, a saucy brunette who vaguely resembles a young Joan Crawford. In later editions, her platinum blond hair is piled into a Dusty Springfield-in-the-Sixties beehive.

Gordon began teaching art as a U.S. Marine after enlisting in 1946. At the time, she was considering a postservice career as a professional piano player, but changed course after giving her first mass art class at a base in Cherry Point, North Carolina. As she tells it, some showgirls didn't make it to a scheduled performance for the troops, so the young artist leapt into the vacuum, taking the stage with a pencil and paper. The soldiers who didn't have the proper materials followed her by scratching pictures in the dirt.

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