Local Obituaries

From David Letterman to President Carter, Conni Gordon taught millions to be artists

Conni Gordon made the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific art teacher. The honor was for teaching 17 million people how to paint through her various classes, TV shows and appearances, books and sessions in Miami Beach for more than 60 years.
Conni Gordon made the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific art teacher. The honor was for teaching 17 million people how to paint through her various classes, TV shows and appearances, books and sessions in Miami Beach for more than 60 years. Miami Herald file 2005

Updated with services information below.

Conni Gordon taught so many people how to paint, the Guinness Book of World Records retired the category she figured in — “the world’s most prolific art teacher” — two years after her 1989 entry into the reference book.

She instructed so many celebrities, CEOs, military personnel and your neighbors — 17 million people, Guinness said — that she had no competition for the title.

Gordon, famed for her “masterpiece in five minutes” method that taught people the skills to make quick sketches, first picked up a brush some 80 years ago at the tail end of the Great Depression. Since then, and up to her death Tuesday at 93 at her Palm Bay Towers apartment in Miami, she remained active in the arts.

Four-step method

She traveled to more than 80 countries to teach her patented Conni Gordon Method of art instruction and to motivate people to be creative. Her four-step method was dubbed TILS: “THINK-it, INK-it, LINK-it then SYNC-it.”

Use her method and anyone could create a “picture in minutes” she encouraged. The accomplishment, she believed, was empowering for people who felt that they couldn’t possibly create anything resembling art.

“I can’t believe Conni’s gone. She’s definitely seen it all. It was such a treat working with Conni,” said Lisa Palley, a Miami public relations executive and former student. After taking Gordon’s class, Palley told the Miami Herald in 2008, “I never thought it was possible to learn something so fast and to learn it in a way that made me want more, more, more.”

In addition to Palley, Gordon’s disciples included IBM executives in Australia and Singapore, Hewlett-Packard employees in Germany, Chevrolet and JC Penney staffers in the States, and 50,000 marines.

Art in Miami

Countless aspiring artists sailed through the doors of the former Conni Gordon Art Center on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road Mall. She founded her school after moving to the city from the Catskills in 1954. When the mall faded in one of its boom-and-bust periods in the 1970s, she relocated her studio a bit north near Miami City Ballet and the ocean in 1979.

Recently, Gordon taught art, public speaking and served the military at the Miami Veterans Administration hospital. She loved working with the average person best.

“I believe people can be even more than they think,” she told the Miami Herald in a 2000 story. “I don’t talk about motivation; I guide people to immediate success.”

Regular people, juggling jobs, child rearing and other distractions of modern life, “might not have as much time to appreciate the arts,” she told the Herald in 2008. “That’s where I come in.”

Teaching celebs

Still, over the years, Gordon had her share of celebrity pupils who learned how to make “quick and easy paintings,” including President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, TV talk show hosts Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and “The Odd Couple” star Tony Randall.

“No one came to me for lessons hoping to become Van Gogh,” Gordon said in 2008. “People came to me to learn to paint, so they could make art and better appreciate the art form.”

Gordon was on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson — she was also a guest of hosts Jack Paar and Steve Allen, predating Carson’s debut on the show in 1962.

Through the 1990s, she did David Letterman’s “Late Night” on NBC and “Late Show” on CBS six times. She flustered the former late night host, stealing the show from Letterman when she brought a nude model onto “Late Night” for a 1989 segment so that she could teach the comedian how to sketch.

Gordon, ever smiling, never lost her natural charm on the air. “You can have a lot of fun with art,” Letterman quipped on air — once he’d regained his composure.

The Connecticut-born Gordon, who earned degrees in art and philosophy from Columbia University and L’Ecoles des Beaux-Arts in Fontainebleau, France, had plenty of television experience. She was there from the medium’s inception.

In 1948, she registered her Conni Gordon Method with the U.S. Copyright Office, and in 1950 began teaching painting on television when she bought air time on New York City’s WPIX after the Sunday evening news. She’d remain on the airwaves for the next 50 years through numerous PBS affiliates, WTVJ (now NBC6) and, more recently, her “Create with Conni” show on Cable TAP in the mid 2000s. Along the way, Gordon authored 41 art instruction books.

In the trenches

Gordon perfected her four-step picture painting method while serving in the U.S. Women’s Marine Corps in 1944 during World War II. She became an entertainer for the troops, drawing from her experience as the daughter of a theatrical booking agent. She could also play keyboards.

But when a group of 50,000 Marines got restless after the Billy Rose dancers didn’t show up for a 1944 performance in North Carolina, Gordon improvised. She taught the men how to paint.

“They were howling for girls, and what was I to do?” Gordon told the Miami Herald in 2005. She taught them her “Draw Your Own Conclusions” class and showed the Marines how to draw decent pictures within minutes. She says the class had such impact that later, while in the trenches, the men would use sticks to recreate the scenes she had taught them in the sand.

Honors and philanthropy

Gordon, who was once married and had no children, picked up numerous honors for her work. In 2012, she received the Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award from the Jewish Museum of Florida-Florida International University. A year earlier, she was honored with the Eight Over 80 Award by the Forest Trace senior community in Lauderhill.

Gordon gave back, too. In 2016, she made a $500,000 legacy gift to the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale to create the Conni Gordon Education Series that supports the museum’s education programs. In 2014, she helped fund and establish the museum’s Art of Teaching Art series. Nova Southeastern University inducted Gordon into its Fellows Society in 2016, and her gift further supports NSU’s Realizing Potential philanthropic campaign.

“Conni Gordon was a great artist, philanthropist and friend to Nova Southeastern University,” said George Hanbury, NSU’s president and CEO. “But beyond that, Conni was a wonderful human being who brought joy and laughter to everyone she encountered.”

Bonnie Clearwater, NSU Art Museum director and chief curator added, “Conni was an inspiration to everyone around her. She was a true visionary and pioneer in the field of art education who believed that everyone had the innate ability to be creative. Her generous spirit and steadfast belief in the power of art inspired generations around the world to think outside the box.”

Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. May 17 at Van Orsdel Funeral Home, 3333 NE Second Ave., Miami. A bus will leave at 12:45 p.m. for Lake Worth for the military ceremony. RSVP to Gayle Carson at gaylecarson13@gmail.com.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen