Art, the Masses, and How to Swing It

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

A white custom Cadillac sits on the bleached lawn at the side entrance of the Conni Gordon School of Art, whose screen door has been posted with a note instructing visitors to "ring bell or yell." The long, low, white building, formerly Bill Jordan's Bar of Music, an old Miami Beach landmark, borders the Collins Canal at 22nd Street, just opposite the Bass Museum of Art.

Dressed in a long black stretch jersey skirt shaped like a bell and a matching appliqued tunic, Conni Gordon opens her studio door on a chilly February morning. She pads around the carpeted floor shoeless, wearing white tube socks folded at the ankles. Gordon's blond hair is caught back in a net, and her twinkling blue eyes stare out from a lined face carefully primed with white face powder. Her figure, which helped put her through art school when she worked modeling fashions for voluptuous women, has grown stocky and round.

A woman of advanced middle age (she refuses to disclose her actual age, saying, "It's a show business thing"), Gordon, a Beach resident since 1954, has lived and worked at this location for twenty years. Although she paints professionally in oil and acrylic, the artist never has been invited to show her work at the neighboring Bass or, for that matter, at any of Miami's other venerable exhibiting institutions. And yet her paintings hang in national museum collections.

Signature examples of Gordon's oeuvre belong to the Ripley's Believe It or Not! museums in St. Augustine and Grand Prairie, Texas. In fact, a Gordon landscape currently can be seen at the Texas Ripley's in an exhibition titled "World's Fastest Painter." Displayed in the Whimsicality Room, it hangs with a rendition of the Last Supper made entirely of pennies and some famous world monuments, notably the Leaning Tower of Pisa, constructed from toothpicks. Gordon finished the landscape in 52 seconds.

For the creator of the Four Step Conni Gordon Methodtm of art instruction, the Ripley's tribute counts as an undeniably important accolade. But it's really just a sideshow attraction to what she considers her outstanding career achievement, a Guinness Book of World Records entry as "the world's most prolific art teacher." The 1989 and 1990 editions of the popular reference book credit Gordon with teaching over sixteen million people to paint. In minutes! Guaranteed! Guinness retired the category in 1991 because Gordon had no competition for the title.

Her massive student body has included 50,000 stateside Marines, 2400 beret-topped housewives at a giant Tupperware party, 900 IBM employees in Singapore, the members of a young millionaires' association in Nigeria, Dade County prisoners, lepers in India, heroin addicts in Hong Kong, senior citizens, schoolchildren, sightless people, and groups of Miami professionals who attended her former school on Lincoln Road in the 1950s.

Fashioning herself as an artist for the television age, Gordon has guided a global village of Sunday painters through the motions of making look-alike pictures of generic landscapes and smiling clowns for nearly half a century. She taped her first television show in 1948, buying time on a New York City station to paint with a palette of primary colors on the black-and-white screen. Since then her career has followed the explosive growth of the medium, outlasting the TV shows of the men with whom she painted a picture during a succession of guest spots: Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson.

Two years ago Gordon logged her sixth appearance with David Letterman, attempting to guide Dave through a chop-chop painting of a clown. A video of the segment shows the pair standing before two prepared easels. Gordon immediately starts slapping paint on her canvas, while Letterman looks on skeptically. He reluctantly follows her lead, dabbing the outlines of the clown's face on his canvas in an awkward copy of Gordon's picture.

"Now take a little more red, and make a T-bar shape," urges Gordon, dipping madly as Letterman smirks. "Okay, now we're going to take a little more red and put the eyes in there, and then the nose here, and so on and so forth..."

"Conni, did you have a lot of coffee before you came out here?" Letterman asks with a chuckle.

"Come on, we're going to make the nose now," she continues in a sing-song voice, ignoring his sniping. "Okay, that's enough paint, that's enough," she tells Letterman.

"You don't have to bark at me, Conni," growls Dave. By now the studio audience is in hysterics.

"I want you to do a beautiful clown so everyone can see that they too can paint in minutes with this method," says Gordon, a smile frozen on her face. And she keeps smiling, even when her host reaches out and childishly draws a line of orange paint through the middle of her clown's face.

"Yeah. Is that the object of painting?" grunts Letterman. "To get it done as quickly as possible?"

Conni Gordon has heard that criticism before, acknowledging that people often question the artistic worth of her paintings. Undaunted, she insists that the hundreds of clowns and lions she has painted in her lifetime have a special kind of value.

"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.

"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.

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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