Art, the Masses, and How to Swing It

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

Gordon left the Marines in 1948 to study art at Columbia University in New York under the G.I. Bill, later traveling to France to attend classes at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Fontainebleau. While studying in New York, she also opened her own art school, where she held what she called "paint parties" for professional groups. Gordon's painting method shared the spirit of quick gratification put forth by paint-by-numbers sets, which enjoyed immense popularity at the time.

"The reason that paint-by-numbers was so popular was that you could get results immediately, so I really concentrated on making it easy for other people to get immediate results," Gordon explains. "I combined my show business background with the instant techniques of getting a result without suffering."

Given that philosophy, it comes as no great surprise that Gordon next tapped into the then-new medium of television as a way of reaching more people than ever before. She solicited several paint companies to sponsor a show, but they turned her down, believing that a class using colored paints was doomed to failure on black-and-white TV. So Gordon used her own money to buy a half hour's airtime each week on New York City's WPIX, right after the Sunday evening news. Along with well-known TV artist John Gnagy, who conducted a Saturday-morning drawing class, Gordon was a television pioneer, promoting herself as an art star. So what if she never made the cover of Artnews. At a time when New York artists such as Jackson Pollock had yet to claim celebrity status, Conni Gordon, wearing false eyelashes and a mink beret, was posing with Chuck (The Rifleman) Connors on a muscular dystrophy telethon.

Her growing popularity won her a job at a Catskills resort, where she was booked to teach painting by the pool, right after Buster ("Tarzan") Crabbe's swimming demonstration. Soon, she says, she was working all the time and "making too much money." Gordon left the resort, closed her New York school, and in 1954 moved to Miami because, as she explains, she liked the weather better here.

Gordon opened a new school at 530 Lincoln Rd., back when the mall still was enjoying its reputation as Miami Beach's Fifth Avenue. She specialized in teaching professional groups, mostly doctors and lawyers, in their leisure time. The students worked with a nude model until Gordon received what she terms "some funny letters.... People just didn't get it," she remembers, "so I had to cut it out."

One afternoon in 1958, Bob Asch, a movie-star-handsome ex-Marine who Conni once dated when she was in the service, walked into the school. They decided to get married that day, she says. Asch was a professional photographer, and he put his talents to work for the Conni Gordon Method, taking pictures of Conni's paintings for her instruction books. Mostly, however, he accompanied his wife on her business trips. "All we did was run around the world," Gordon remembers. "His life became my life, rather than the usual, which is the reverse. Everybody called him Mr. Gordon. We were very happily married for seventeen years," she says nostalgically, before quickly changing the subject.

Gordon closed the Lincoln Road school in the late Seventies when the mall fell out of favor and into disrepair. Meanwhile, the convention circuit called. "I simply do not run a school any more," she explains, picking up one of the photo albums. "I go around the world doing conventions. I make more money doing one convention than I would teaching classes here for five years, for God sakes."

These days, however, things have been a little slow, although a 30-minute infomercial plugging her catalogue of videos, paint kits, and Conni Gordon calendar-style art notecards has run recently on the Home Shopping Network. Additionally, last month she hosted the half-hour Paint Along With Conni on Miami cable station Channel 37. Aired on Thursday mornings, just before Tara Talks and Hello Amigos, and just after New Literacy and Money Puzzle, the show gave Gordon a forum to teach viewers the principles of sketching and painting a subject. For example, she demonstrated how to paint a lion A first in a realistic fashion, then in a faux-Cubist manner A with a blob of white, a tiny touch of ochre, and a smidgen of burnt sienna to obtain the lion's fur color.

Gordon hopes that the show will be picked up by local PBS affiliate WLRN (Channel 17) this summer. But Steve Weisberg, the station's program director, says no definite scheduling plans have been made as yet, since programs hosted by other TV artists already have been approved for the current season. Weisberg adds that he likes to vary the televised art classes A a public television staple A by alternating teachers who work in a variety of styles, such as sketching, acrylics, cartooning, and even video art.

Public TV show or no public TV show, Gordon continues to work away in her studio, developing new class lessons, sending out promotional materials, and waiting for a call from her agent. As Stanley Burns waves goodbye, she stands in the doorway, looking out at the Bass Museum.

"I've always got a few irons in the fire," she says with determination, punching the air. "Remember, there's no one else in the world who's interested so many people in painting as me.

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