Milford Zornes (1908 - 2008)
Artist Biography - Watercolor painting enjoyed a major renaissance early in the 20th Century in Southern California when a group of artists began using it as a primary medium. S cholar Gordon McClelland, in his recently published book, California Watercolors 1850-1970, places the beginnings of the California Style in the 1920s. Milford Zornes, one of the members of this group, turned ninety-five in January 2003, and is the last living artist of that pioneering movement.

Born in Oklahoma in 1908, Zornes moved west to California during the Dust Bowl years. When he turned twenty, he hitchhiked across the United States, worked as a longshoreman on the docks in New York City, and then traveled to Europe. After his return to Los Angeles in the early 1930s, Zornes studied at the Otis Art Institute. His interest in watercolor eventually led him to seek out and study with Millard Sheets, who was an art professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

Los Angeles was a boomtown in the 1920s, and artists were intrigued by the blossoming cityscape. Many of their paintings focused on the street scenes of new buildings, cars and people. Others explored the stunning California landscapes of oceans, mountains and deserts.

Watercolor was a relatively inexpensive medium that could be easily transported for on-site paintings. Instead of using it to just color drawings, artists began to use watercolor as a medium, substantial in itself, like oil. Those working in this genre were part of the California Watercolor Society that included Phil Dike and Sheets. These artists expanded the vocabulary of traditional watercolor painting by heightening the expressive qualities of the medium and expanding the size. East Coast collectors and institutions took notice and began to buy their work.

Joining the group in the 1930s, Zornes quickly became an artist of major importance. He was given a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1933. President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt noticed his work and selected a painting for the White House. The quick transformation from art student to a nationally-recognized artist helped Zornes launch a career that took him around the world and established him as a key figure among California Style artists.

Zornes' works are distinguished by their broad, sweeping brushstrokes and unusually large scale. Zornes also proved to be a master in the use of unpainted areas of white to define forms in paintings such as Winter at Mt. Carmel, where painted mountains and trees are set dramatically against the bright white of the paper.

A major theme in Zornes' life and work has been his passion for travel. Whether painting the islands of Bali in the South Pacific or a marketplace in Uganda, the climate, architecture and people of various locales have been a key inspiration. His love for other cultures led him to South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. After his early travels in the 1920s and 1930s, Zornes was commissioned by the United States military to accompany a division in Southeast Asia to record battles and meetings among military officials.

Zornes, as an artist and adventurer, has captured the imagination of art collectors and the general public. He is a kind of local hero in Claremont, California, where he currently resides. Zornes has taught at Pomona College, Otis Art Institute, University of California at Santa Barbara, Riverside Art Center, Pasadena School of fine Arts, and in many watercolor workshops. His work is included in the collections of major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Milford Zornes' life is the subject of a recently released documentary by NBC News reporter Laurel Erickson, created in conjunction with an exhibition in Spring 2003 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Wesley P. Jessup, American Art Review, April 2003

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Milford Zornes