Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts

Milford Zornes

 

 

MILFORD ZORNES
1908 - 2008
"Master of the Brush"         
Written by Susan Bingham

Milford Zornes work is characterized by large shapes, abstracted forms and compositions that are strong and powerful. At the age of 92, while performing a workshop demonstration in the old Dixon studio that he once owned, with brush in hand, a colorful palette of watercolors and a large sheet of watercolor paper, he began: "It all begins with a line, with shapes and with simplifying what you see.  That is how you will end up with a powerful composition" he said in his very deep, commanding voice, holding the attention of all 30 attendees who had traveled near and far to participate.

Traditionally, watercolors were more like colored drawings, the drawings being detailed to a certain degree and then filled in with color. Of course people like Mary Cassat, J.M.W.Turner, Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent had brought this medium to a high art form, beautiful in their luminosity and loose, broad brushstrokes.

In the 1920's Los Angeles was a thriving place for artists. The climate and the scenery were exciting and drew artists from all over the United States.  Artists were able to paint out doors on a regular basis and watercolors were portable and cheap and a great way for the artist to get quick studies for later studio paintings. Millard Sheets, who taught at the Otis Art Institute, began to paint watercolor more like the way one would approach oils, with the medium becoming the drawing, rather than coloring in pencil drawings. Painting the landscape of California, it's back roads, farms, beaches, and people, the "California Style", somewhat similar to many of the regionalists in other parts of the country but with a definite California look, began to evolve. 

The California Watercolor Society had many members and Milford Zornes is one of the more well known along with people such as Millard Sheets, Phil Paradise, Phil Dike, Emil Kosa, George Post, Paul Sample and many others. Watercolor painting throughout the nation was greatly influenced by this group.

Milford Zornes was born in Cumargo, Oklahoma and the family moved to Los Angeles when he was just a teenager. By the age of 20 he had sought adventure by traveling across the country and ending up in New York where he worked on the docks. He boarded a ship to Denmark as a merchant marine, and subsequently traveled throughout Europe. By 1930 he was back in Los Angeles and had decided to become an artist and thus enrolled at the Otis Art Institute.  He studied with the California impressionist Frank Tolles Chamberlain and also took classes from early modernist Millard Sheets. It was this association that led him to become a professor of art at Pomona College where he taught for many years.

Throughout the 1930's he began to exhibit his new style watercolors all over the United States. In 1938 he received a cash award for one of his paintings exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago's seventh exhibition "International Watercolor Exhibition." He also turned his attention to murals at that time, working for the W.P.A. , the Federal Arts Project established to put artists to work during the depression.

Called to serve his country in World War II, Milford was assigned as an official artist of the United States Army and was sent to Burma and India to record activities there. Because of the distinction of his W.P.A. and other wartime artwork, he was honored with a one person exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. One of his paintings was selected by President and Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt for the White House Collection.  This publicity and attention widely enhanced his career.

After the war, he lived in several locations in California, and found time to travel and paint in Alaska and Greenland. After teaching at Pomona College he began to also develop the idea of traveling workshops which took him all over the world including China, Alaska, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Spain and Hawaii.

In 1963 Milford and his wife Pat had raised their daughter and decided to have another adventure. A longtime friend, and widow of Maynard Dixon, Edith Hamlin Dixon had decided to sell the home and studio she and Maynard had established in 1939 in Mt. Carmel, Utah, near Zion National Park. Milford purchased the property in 1963 and taught workshops every summer for many years there. Years before, in 1939 he had met with Edith and Maynard in San Francisco, and they had told him about the property they had purchased and built a home on, and suggested to him that he come there and begin to establish an art colony with them. His life led him back to California after the war where he established his teaching and art careers and he didn't visit Utah until 1963.

Milford was a tall, strong man with a remarkable resiliency both in his physical stature and in his art career. He painted and gave workshops well into his 90's even doing workshops in Mt. Carmel after it was purchased by the new owners in 1998.  

In 2008, Milford purchased an expensive watercolor brush, a purchase some may have called frivolous. But he stated: "I am going to do a demonstration on my 100th birthday." And so he did. A large retrospective of his work was mounted in a gallery in California, and Milford though weakened from congestive heart failure and in a wheel chair, rose with his beautiful new brush, his watercolors and talked about his work and demonstrated his methods to an admiring crowd.  

The master put down his brush for the last time, passing away at his home in Claremont California on Feb 8, 2008, one month after his 100th birthday celebration. In June of 2009 a memorial site was established on the old Dixon, Zornes property. His ashes were scattered on a hill high above the studio and a rock under a Cedar tree was designated with a plaque of remembrance. Pat passed away in 2008 and her ashes were scattered near Milford's and a plaque was placed on the same rock with Milford.

Milford is survived by his daughter Maria Baker, son Franz Zornes, six grandchildren and numerous great grandchildren.

COLLECTIONS:  Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Butler Institute of Art, National Academy of Design, San Diego Museum of Art, Laguna Beach Museum of Art, U.S. War Department Collection, Library of Congress Collection, Pomona Public Library, Fontana Public Library, Shatford Library, Pasadena City College and many private collections worldwide.

ASSOCIATIONS:  National Academy of Design, A.W.S. (American Watercolor Society) past president, West Coast Watercolor Society.  He is considered one of the most influential of the "California Style" Movement which began in about 1930.

It is with great pleasure that the THUNDERBIRD FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS, presents this very important collection of paintings by Mr. Zornes which date from the 1940's to 1996.  



 



 

 

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