Editor's note: The following essay was published on October 1, 2013 in Resource Library with permission of the authors and Maria and Hal Baker. The Grace Hudson Museum provided other source material published with the essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or other source material, please contact the Grace Hudson Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Milford Zornes: A Painter of Influence

by Carolyn Wing Greenlee and Marvin A. Schenck


James Milford Zornes was born January 25, 1908 in Camargo, Oklahoma. His father James was a farmer and rancher and his mother Clara was a schoolteacher. Neighbors called him "the kid who could draw." When he was born, Clara said, "This one is going to be an artist," but, according to Milford, it wasn't a burning passion from childhood, it just sort of happened to him. "The Depression came along and I wasn't able to get a job, but my mother had taught me to draw at home, and people always had kids or dogs or houses they wanted pictures of, so I could always make money that way."

Unfamiliar places, not painting, were Milford's boyhood passion. Hearing of Admiral Byrd's explorations, he was captivated by imaginations of dog sleds, ice, and adventure. He wanted to go to the North Pole. He wrote Admiral Byrd a letter asking his advice on how to get started, and actually got a reply. It took the romantic shine off the dream, but not the dream itself.

When Milford was 14 the family relocated to Idaho. Three years later, they moved again to the Los Angeles area. After graduating from high school Milford attended college for a short time in Central California and San Francisco exploring writing and architecture as possible professions. But then the lure of adventure took hold and he hitchhiked to New York.

"I always wanted to know what was over the horizon," Milford said. He wanted to go to Europe. How does a poor kid do that? In 1929, the best way was to get a job on a merchant ship. After crossing the Atlantic, he jumped ship in Denmark and then hitchhiked and bicycled through Holland, Belgium and France till he reached Paris. There, the art masterpieces in the museums rekindled his appreciation of art. He then found employment as a seaman and worked his way to Los Angeles.

When Milford came back from his young wanderings, he enrolled at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. A year later he happened to see a show in a gallery in Pasadena, California, He was astounded. "Here were bright watercolors done of ordinary things. That was a turning point for me. I had some vague idea about art. I didn't know what it was. Art was a traditional attitude or something." 

Milford had just seen the art of Millard Sheets, "Somebody told me he was just a young fella. It turned out he was only a year older than me. Then it seemed so simple: you just go out and paint things you know, that you look at. You're no longer encumbered by this idea of art as something remote from your experience. Millard was oriented to painting what he knew and what he saw and once I got the idea that's what painting is, I had the feeling, well I can do it. From then on, I was a lost soul.

As a young artist in the 1930s, Milford Zornes quickly gained national success as part of the group of modern watercolorists painting local outdoor subjects in what was known as the California Style. He further developed his eye for detail and sense of place during World War II, traveling in India, China and Burma as a military artist.

Back in the civilian world after the war, Milford made several crucial decisions, all based on his choice to be a painter. He wanted his livelihood to be his art. He didn't want his art to be a secondary endeavor. He didn't want anything to take him away from his daily painting, not even a professorship at a college, which would have given him a more secure future. 

Though he is remembered as a key figure in the Regionalist and American Scene painting movement of the 20th century, Milford preferred no limitations of classification or expectation in style, subject or medium. He wanted to be remembered as Milford Zornes, the painter, and he relentlessly traveled the world, filling his eyes and paintings with whatever he found.  

The current exhibition at the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah, California, reflects the Zornes story with the added perspective of his daughter and son-in-law, Maria Zornes Baker and Hal Baker, who, along with Marvin Schenck, Grace Hudson Museum Curator, have curated the show. Milford Zornes: A Painter of Influence spans his career of development and experimentation with media and subject matter. Many works are on view for the first time. The exhibit, through quotations and video, also highlights Milford's other legacy, his sixty years of teaching painting workshops, influencing thousands of students all over the world.

By the 1970s and '80s, Milford was a much-sought-after workshop teacher. Often he went from one session to another. He worked for a travel company that scheduled foreign painting trips.  After each workshop he would stay an extra few days to continue painting the locale. He WAS STILL doing international watercolor class excursions through his mid-nineties.

I was a teenager in 1966 when I attended one of Milford's first Utah workshops. Each day, Milford took us to a location to paint. We'd tackle the spectacular scenery, trying to translate the magnificence onto a half sheet of watercolor paper. Milford never rested. He walked from student to student evaluating and making suggestions. Every evening we gathered for the critique. He would prop up a painting on an easel, never without a neutral mat around the piece. The mat changed it from the day's exercise into a painting worth considering.

First Milford pointed out the strengths of the work, then explained how it could be improved, speaking truth with great kindness. The Zornes method taught us to see, how to approach a scene, how to create order in our work. It did not turn us into a bunch of Zornes clones. We blossomed each in our own way. 

The next time I saw Milford, it was 2001.  He had come to an exhibition of my paintings and photographs, a show which would not have happened had he not taught me in my early years. By then, both of us had lost much of our sight. He told me he had gone through a year of depression, but had chosen to continue to paint, adapting to the requirements of seeing without detail. 

Lacking central vision, Milford had learned to look through binoculars until he understood the shapes. Then he painted the outlines, reducing the scene to its most basic forms. Since he couldn't see nuances of color, he used intensity to create depth and dimension, relying on decades of mixing paint to give him the colors he desired. He told me, "Actually, I think I'm a better painter now."

Forty years after my first workshop with Milford, I attended the last one he would hold in Utah. Workshop students always crowded around Milford for insights on painting and art, but his continuing to paint in the midst of the frustration of macular degeneration affected some in deeper ways. Perhaps it encouraged those who faced obstacles that were keeping them from fulfilling their dreams. He showed them they could find a different way to get the job done.

It wasn't long before we were working on a book. My ulterior motive was to have more time to learn from the one whose approach to art and teaching had influenced me the most. He always surprised me. 

More than once, I heard him say, "Everything three feet from me is chaos, but I have complete control over this painting." He believed art supplied for us what was lacking in our lives. For him, it was order and control. He said each of us must find the art form that helps balance us, and it doesn't have to be painting.

Milford did not impose a style on his subject. He looked at it until he had "the truth of the matter," and then distilled it into the line that said "palm tree." He let the subject tell him what it was, and often portrayed it "the way it would be if it could tell you what it wanted to be." It's like having a conversation in which you ask the new acquaintance to tell you about himself, listen, and then speak back your understanding of what he said, seeing beyond the present to who the person is at his best. Interpreting the subject in terms of its own self, that requires attention and humility.  I believe that's one of the reasons Milford continued to grow unhindered in his painting all the way to the end.

Since Milford wanted everyone to be able to afford a piece of original art, he kept his prices low, and painted prodigiously. It was not a chore for him, because he was always striving to paint the perfect picture. Completed paintings were forgotten. Often his studio floor was covered with pictures which had lost his interest once he'd explored them as much as he could. They were so inconsequential to him that he sometimes stepped on them without noticing. He said, "You learn to paint and then you paint to learn." That drive to find a way to communicate the truth of the matter so focused his life that he rose early, slept little, and sacrificed normal human life the way Olympic hopefuls eliminate everything that distracts from their event. Excellence has its cost.

After eighty years of painting almost every day, Milford was still working hard to paint the perfect painting. He was always striving to express a banyan tree just right. He told me artists never retire, and he didn't intend to. He was still working at it a week before he passed away.

On January 26, 2008, one day after his 100th birthday, Milford celebrated by doing a demonstration painting at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It turned out to be a fitting memorial service, which is what Milford wanted it to be. 

The last time I saw Milford, he was on hospice. I had brought some copies of our book for him to sign. A few others came, and he gladly sat in his favorite chair talking with us, asking about world events, discussing art and eternity, obviously enjoying knowing that people were still interested in him and his work. Eighteen days later, he was gone. 

In the half century since I met Milford Zornes, I never saw him act like a big-shot artist, even though  he was a member of the National Academy, the highest honor awarded a living artist. With kindness, he told us how to improve our paintings, taught us to find the truth of the matter, and showed us by his life that our worst nightmare need not stop us. We could find a different way, perhaps one that was even better. 

He never retired.


About Carolyn Wing Greenlee

Carolyn Wing Greenlee studied painting with Milford Zornes, and later taught art and creative writing in public and private schools using his approach to teaching. After three years of interviewing Zornes, Greenlee produced four books on his art. Each focuses on a less familiar aspect of his work, such as his full-sheet paintings with India ink. "Nine Decades with a Master Painter," presents Zornes' array of subject matter from his travels all over the globe in a range of mediums, along with his thoughts on painting, the creative process, and his adaptations to blindness.

Greenlee graduated from Occidental College with a bachelor's in comparative literature and did her graduate work in creative writing at UC Davis. She was a professional photographer for thirty years, with exhibits of her photos and paintings in galleries and art museums. She has illustrated books, designed greeting cards and album covers, In 1994, she founded Earthen Vessel Productions, Inc, a small, independent publishing company. Since then she has edited twenty books, giving voice to unpublished, ordinary people who have overcome  overwhelming adversity. She has written two art courses, and thirteen books on such subjects as the Chinese American experience and life with service dogs. She is currently working on Volume III of the "Eternal River" series, a six-generation family memoir. All three volumes contain stories of Milford Zornes, a friend of many years.

About Marvin A. Schenck

Marvin A. Schenck, Curator at the at the Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House in Ukiah, CA, holds a B.F.A. from California College of the Arts and a M.F.A. from Mills College in printmaking. He has thirty-seven years of curatorial experience with a focus on historic California art. He has written numerous exhibition catalogs including Maurice Logan: Artist and Designer (Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary's College of California, 1991), and co-wrote Aurelius O. Carpenter: Photographer of the Mendocino Frontier (Grace Hudson Museum, 2006).

Information about the related exhibition

Milford Zornes - A Painter of Influence is on exhibit at the Grace Hudson Museum August 10 - October 13, 2013.

Milford Zornes (1908-2008), was an inspired California painter whose work spanned nine decades and most of the world's continents. His rhythmic, direct, watercolors remain an important art influence as did his seventy-five years of teaching. Milford first came to fame as a member of the California School of watercolor in the 1930's. He spent World War II as an official artist for the Army in Asia. After the war he began his career again painting the outdoor American Scene. He is remembered for his contribution to the American Regionalist movement in the mid-20th century. Zornes went on to explore abstraction but returned to landscapes with a bolder direct style. His painting workshops given around the world were very popular and left an indelible legacy with thousands of watercolorists. Maria and Hal Baker, Milford's daughter and son-in-law, along with Marvin Schenck, Grace Hudson Museum Curator, curated this retrospective exhibit especially for the Museum. Many of the paintings on display have never been shown before. Selected works will also be available for purchase.


(above: Milford Zornes, Winter at Mt. Carmel, Utah, 1970, watercolor, courtesy of Maria and Hal Baker and californiawatercolor.com)

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on October 1, 2013 with permission of authors Carolyn Wing Greenlee and Marvin A. Schenck, and Maria and Hal Baker, granted to TFAO on September 18, 2013.

An article based on the essay was published in the September-October, 2013 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Marvin Schenck, Curator, Grace Hudson Museum & Sun House for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

Readers may also enjoy:

See America's Distinguished Artists for more biographical information on artists cited in the above essay.

A collector acquainted with TFAO recently wished to bring to readers' attention the two following watercolors by Milford Zornes so that persons interested in the artist's work would be aware of the images.

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Grace Hudson Museum in Resource Library.

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