Artist Michael Connor's brush with death helps bring to life literally hundreds of inspired paintings

01/05/2018 05:45 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2018
Artist Michael Connor at work at his studio in Northern California
Artist Michael Connor at work at his studio in Northern California

The near-catastrophic event

Today, abstract artist Michael Connor measures everything on either side of May 20, 2016. That’s the day he had his near fatal heart attack. Born in Minneapolis and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Connor first came to California in 1980 and began working in the advertising industry as a graphic designer. From there he eventually opened his own firm among other things and by ‘16 was an established industry veteran (along with being a budding and notable abstract painter). He had started getting unusually tired about six months earlier, but didn’t consider it any sort of symptom. Then on a Friday night, home from work, it struck. He was answering emails when all of a sudden, he felt sharp cramping in his shoulder blades. Next thing he knew, a family member was giving him mouth to mouth, then an ambulance driver told him he was being rushed to a hospital. The rest is a bit of a blur.

“I had a three-hour operation that night and they basically lost me on the table as I went into full arrest,” he explained. “I flat-lined two times. I was gone. At first I could see people standing around me, and then I left; transported to a peaceful and calm place in the universe. I still felt connected to all in the room, in a way, but I didn’t want to go back to them. It was like re-entering the womb, as I remember thinking. A deep and satisfying peace and deeply relaxed space that I was perfectly comfortable with. Think of your most calm and restful moment and multiply it by a billion.”

An artist is born

“Well obviously they brought me back,” he continues. “And the experience was life altering to say the least.” Connor began meditation stress therapy and began reliving the heart attack. He had painted as a hobby for years before the major health scare, but life-after-near-death became a profound inspiration for him. The therapy helped him begin creating at an almost unfathomable pace - over 300 paintings in the first year since the attack. His abstracts are ethereal, evocative and heavily steeped in themes of water. His non-linear narratives illustrate his experience navigating what he candidly describes as “going somewhere else.”

Much of most recent work is all thanks to a doctor. “When my Cardiologist recommended I get some mindfulness recovery, I was very happy and I was also surprised because I had just happened across a meditation practice a few weeks before that dealt with just such things. Now I had time to do the practice and focus more on what to do with the rest of my life. Out of this recovery came ‘The Water Series.’ It started with a session in regression meditation that took me through that portal the night of the heart attack. I felt an energy burst in one of my sessions that knocked me out of my meditation and left me shaking. My therapist suggested that it might be something that I’ll never know why or the meaning of it.

“Water Series- Girl at the Bottom of the Lake”
“Water Series- Girl at the Bottom of the Lake”

“Being underwater became a metaphor for the afterlife. That was the heart attack experience. And then I just kept going. The water became such a muse for me in so many ways. We’ve now moved to a place overlooking the ocean near Mendocino and it’s not just therapeutic, it’s inspirational.” His family (wife and three children ages 31, 27 and 25) appreciate how at peace and present Connor is now, having left advertising to focus on his painting full time.

The future

“The body of work I have and continue to evolve would never had existed were it not for my heart attack,” Connors says thoughtfully. “In that way it’s a gift that will inspire me the rest of my life.” He had his first art show in 2015 after being invited to exhibit and right away, Connor’s work connected with many. And he has no intention of slowing down. “After you flat-line on an operating table - and live to talk about it - you realize how precious time is. As an artist, along with as a husband and father, that motivates me to create as much as I can and to follow each muse. You just don’t know what may happen at any given moment.”

See his work:

Gualala Art Center on the Northern California coast will be presenting Connor’s “Mindless Brush” exhibit during the month of the month of February. Opening reception is on Feb 2nd. from 5-7 pm and the show is free to the public.

Sample Michael Connor gallery:

“Journey Coming Into Being”
“Journey Coming Into Being”
“Journey Return to Spirit”
“Journey Return to Spirit”
“Mindless Brush Dancer”
“Mindless Brush Dancer”
“Water Series - New Life”
“Water Series - New Life”
“Water Series - She Became One”
“Water Series - She Became One”
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