Rekindling a longtime love: Terry Connor lets his artistic talent flow in retirement and enjoys teaching others

By Emily Griffith | Living 50 Plus

Many struggle to find purpose in retirement after a lifetime of hard work. For Terry Connor, retirement is a blessing that has allowed him to accelerate his art.

“I’m cranking out picture after picture because I’m at peace, I don’t have to worry about work (and) I’m in an environment where I can just express it,” Connor said.

After 35 years at General Electric, Connor retired and moved to an apartment at Riverside Senior Living in Decatur with his wife, Angelia, in February. Although the move was originally due to his wife’s health concerns and issues in their previous neighborhood, Connor said God has used the change for much more.

“I never dreamed God would do it this way in this venue, but I have learned not to argue with God, because he can bring some of the most wonderful things out of the places you wouldn’t expect him to,” Connor said.

From the age of 6, Connor has been using art to express himself, following in the footsteps of his older brothers. Even in the first grade, Connor knew his talent when his peers were using stick figures while he used full-bodied drawings.

“I didn’t know how to express it or where it came from, I just knew that I was able to do things that some of the other kids couldn’t,” Connor said.

Many of his skills stem from three weeks of free art classes he won in high school from Gayle Strider, a beloved art teacher from Hartselle. He went on to sell his first painting to one of his high school teachers in the 10th grade.

“The lady that taught me to paint, one thing she told me is ‘Do not be afraid of color because it can be your best friend,’” Connor said.

He still carries that wisdom with him in his art, using vibrant colors that he says are “alive.” Not only does he carry on her wisdom, but he continues her legacy by teaching others.

Connor recalls teaching an autistic child to paint in a back room of the Decatur Public Library years ago. The child’s mother put him in classes to help with his anger and frustration. At the end of the classes, the mother thanked Connor for a painting she thought was his work and that he had sent home with her son. It turned out that her son was the one who had painted it.

“Even in an autistic child, there’s a beauty and an artistry that can be brought out and captured,” Connor said.

Finding inspiration

Although Connor was unable to pursue art professionally, he continued to create throughout his life by painting for his family, friends, and local churches. He said he has painted murals for several Decatur churches including Central Baptist, New Song, and LifePoint over the years.

Connor’s style is a combination of naturalist and expressionist, primarily depicting lifelike images of landscapes and animals. He often prays about what to paint. He feels he received his gift from God and wants to honor God with his work.

“God’s first thing he was doing is creating,” Connor said. “We all have the ability to create. We need to visualize things and create like part of being in God’s image.”

One of his favorite paintings is an ode to his ancestors in Africa, with images of various animals, people and landmarks from Africa. He even included the famous baobab tree, or the “Upside down tree,” whose legend says that they were thrown by God and landed upside down in the Earth.

“It’s a way to express a thank you for what they had to go through and some of the things that they still go through,” Connor says of his ancestors. “But yet they’re still such a powerful, strong people, and I wanted to convey that.”

Sharing his talent

Through his art, Connor has been able to touch the lives of the residents and staff at Riverside.

Lisa Burns, Riverside’s activities director, has known the Connors since she was 19 years old. Her mother ran the Boys and Girls Club that the Connors’ two children attended growing up and have been close family friends ever since. She said that when she heard they needed a place to stay, she wanted them at Riverside.

The walls of Riverside’s kitchen are covered in Connor’s drawings on the backs of the menus that he sketches for the staff each day. Characters like Eddie the squirrel are featured in many of them, and Burns said they make the kitchen staff’s day.

Connor also teaches art classes at Riverside to his fellow residents. Burns said she had to turn people away because so many residents were interested in his next class.

“He is very very patient and talented, and he encourages us and makes us want to paint,” Evelyn Weisfeld said.

Even in old age, Connor recommends that everyone try to create some type of art. He referenced world-renowned artist Grandma Moses who began painting when she was 78 years old.

“You’re not just sitting there growing old with no purpose, you actually can create something that people might enjoy,” Connor said.