February 25, 2008

A genuine artist


By Diana Sholley, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

James Milford Zornes, who died in Claremont on Sunday at the age of 100.
(Therese Tran/Staff Photographer)

Today the skies won't seem as blue, the grass as green, or the sun so golden orange.

Landscapes everywhere will be somewhat muted as they've lost one of their most devoted admirers.

James Milford Zornes, born Jan. 25, 1908, died Sunday night in his Claremont home from congestive heart failure. He was 100.

He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Pat; two children, Maria Baker and Franz Zornes; six grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

"We've known he's been going downhill for quite a while," said Maria. "He went peacefully. We're glad he didn't suffer. We were lucky to have him so long."

Maria heard a researcher once call her father "the most prolific watercolor artist in the United States." That really doesn't surprise her.

"My dad painted a story, and he wanted people to be able to understand the story," she said. "He would look at a landscape and get the feel of it, maybe add things that weren't there to give it more of a story. He'd listen to what it was saying to him - that's what sets him apart when you're looking at his work. You're not not looking at a photograph, you're looking at a concept."

Zornes' work is part of collections at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the White House.

In the Inland Empire, his work can be seen at the Claremont Post Office and the soon-to-open Lewis Library and Technology Center in Fontana. His paintings are also part of the Chaffey Art Association's permanent collection.

Because of his artistic success, the Zornes family traveled the world extensively.

"We were lucky. We had a lot of opportunities other children didn't have," she said. "I learned early that art was his passion, but also my father loved people, he was always meeting new people."

With regularity Zornes would gather his family for a Sunday drive and before they knew it they were hundreds of miles away from home.

"One time, we wound up in this Navajo community. As he was talking and meeting people, I played with Navajo kids," Maria said.

"We learned to see the world through my dad's eyes - vast and beautiful landscapes just waiting to be painted, waiting to be captured."

Anyone who knew Zornes was given unique opportunities, especially his students who will carry on his artistic legacy.

"He was my first teacher in art at Pomona College," said Rupert Deece, a professional sculptor who became good friends with his instructor. "He contrasted the other teachings that were going on. He got us started on geometric composition and had us thinking of the spacial configurations of a painting. I heard him say many times that `a painting was an idea with a frame around it.' I never heard anyone else put it quite that way."

Zornes was such a good teacher that Deece, who attended college for a career in chemistry, turned his sights to his artistic passion and never looked back.

"There were so many things that I liked about the man, but what I loved about him most was his essential grace," he said. "He'd been losing his eyesight to macular degeneration for years and still continued to paint, never complaining."

Zornes was diagnosed with the debilitating disease about 20 years ago. Macular degeneration gradually destroys a person's central vision and can lead to blindness.

James Hueter, a good friend of Zornes since 1948, called the artist an inspiration.

"He was an outstanding individual in ways that other people might not even know," said Hueter, a professional artist. "How he handled his macular degeneration was exemplary. He did everything he could to learn about it and suggested new treatments to his doctors. He looked for ways to help himself and to help others."

Zornes painted nearly until the day he died. Hueter said his landscapes became more abstract, but still had the Zornes style.

When he could no longer see the pallet, paper or scenery with his eyes, he saw them in his mind and painted what he saw.

Hueter described his friend as "his own man" who said what he felt and meant what he said.

"More than anyone I knew, he always did what he thought was right," Hueter said. "He was quite a person."

No services are planned. Zornes' family considers the birthday bash that celebrated his 100th birthday the perfect ending to a life well-lived.

Desert Valley by Milford Zornes, 1953.

An artist's life

Jan. 25, 1908 - James Milford Zornes is born in rural western Oklahoma.

1928 - Hitchhikes across America.

1930 - Studies art in Los Angeles with F. Tolles Chamberlin at the Otis Art Institute. Zornes becomes interested in watercolor painting and takes additional lessons in this medium from Millard Sheets at Scripps College.

1930 - Becomes part of California Scene Artists, an elite group of watercolor artists that painted California landscapes.

1937 - Zornes was one of 12 artists picked to represent California watercolor painting for Larson P. Cooper's California Group traveling show.

1939 - Zornes and Millard Sheets work together on a mural for the San Francisco World's Fair.

1940s - Teaches at Pomona College.

1943 - Zornes is drafted into the Army and assigned to be an war artist in China, India and Burma. Zornes paints in those countries and turns most of the art over to the War Department. The art collection is housed at the Pentagon. He has an art show in Bombay during this time.

1948 - He becomes part of the American Water Color Society.

Late 1950s to early 1960s - He is the art director for the Padua Hills Theater in Claremont.

1951 - Helps build Thule Air Force Base in Greenland.

1963 - Buys the Maynard Dixon Studio in Southern Utah, outside Zion National Park. Teaches art classes there for 13 years.

1965 - Moves to Utah.

1982 - Creates the largest single-sheet watercolor, which is on display at the Claremont Colleges.

1987 - Receives the Paul Prescott Barrow award from Pomona College.

1988 - Receives "A Most Distinguished Citizen" award from Southern Utah State College.

1991 - Receives the David Prescott Burrows award.

1994 - Receives the American Artist Achievement award from American Artist Magazine.

1994 - Elected National Academician by the National Academy of Design.

1998 - Returns to Claremont.