Art, the Masses, and How to Swing It

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.

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Judy Cantor