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What he saw: Milford Zornes' work helped define California landscape painting 

There is something different about some of the paintings on the wall at the DANA Adobe Cultural Center in Nipomo.

The paintings are all the work of Milford Zornes, a noted member of the California Scene Painters movement, and they seem entirely cohesive at first. But as one progresses through the exhibit, there is evidence of a shift in style. The work seems to drift from realism to more sustained examples of impressionism and then finally into a surreal beautiful type of abstraction.

The common bond they all share is a definite and immediate sense of place. If you live on the Central Coast, you know these images. Here are the rolling hills on the east side of Highway 101; here is the land jutting out from the coast just past Pismo Beach. This is our California, captured by the skilled and trained eye of one man.

click to enlarge TOGETHER NOW The collection of Milford Zornes' work at the DANA Adobe Cultural Center is a landmark collection from the artist, known as a prominent member of the California Scene Painters movement. Many of Zornes' family members lent their paintings to the center to be featured in the show. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • TOGETHER NOW The collection of Milford Zornes' work at the DANA Adobe Cultural Center is a landmark collection from the artist, known as a prominent member of the California Scene Painters movement. Many of Zornes' family members lent their paintings to the center to be featured in the show.

For DANA board members such as Alan Daurio, the paintings represent the culmination of a longtime effort to expand what the DANA—which stands for Dana Adobe Nipomo Amigos—is known for as well as to highlight the work of an influential artist.

"It's a fantastic opportunity to showcase the work of an artist who lived to be 100," Daurio said. "He was extremely prolific, and we have a record of his work from the Great Depression to the 2000s. We jumped at it."

The DANA Adobe Cultural Center is hosting a unique exhibit of Zornes' work through Jan. 27. In August, the center put out a request to the general public to ask if it could borrow Zornes' paintings to be featured at the museum. The exhibit, which now contains dozens of his paintings made over a span of 80 years, gives the community an opportunity to learn more about the painter as well as the impact he and his work had on the art world and the California art community.

For those who knew the artist personally, the exhibit tells a story of a man who forged a jagged path to the art world, surviving as a working artist during the Great Depression, painting art in Asia for the Army in World War II, and eventually becoming one of the most successful and influential landscape artists to emerge from California. For others just getting to know his work and life, the paintings tell a story of a man utterly devoted to his art and the heartbreaking realities he faced at the end of his life.

Depth and breadth

Today, the sleek halls of the DANA Adobe Cultural Center are lit by massive beams of golden sunlight from the floor-to-ceiling windows. Examples of Zornes' work fill the walls. Many were donated by family members, including Hal and Maria Baker, Zornes' daughter. They represent an effort by the DANA board to bring together as much of Zornes' work as they could find, thanks to an outreach effort started in 2017.

Daurio, a longtime DANA board member and docent, said the Bakers were interested in showcasing Zornes' work after seeing the new cultural center, which opened in May 2018 as part of a $14 million expansion project.

click to enlarge THE VISION The Milford Zonres show at DANA Above Cultural Center. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • THE VISION The Milford Zonres show at DANA Above Cultural Center.

"They saw the potential for hosting an exhibit," Daurio said. "We thought it would be something people would connect to, considering the subject matter and scope of the work."

Daurio said the DANA Cultural Center was working to expand beyond being known as just a showcase for the adobe, but as a center where people could come and explore other aspects of local culture or participate in events.

For DANA board member Rudy Stowell, the importance of the Zornes exhibit is to highlight an influential artist with roots in Nipomo whose work also featured prominent aspects of the region, including the adobe and surrounding scenery. He said he was surprised at just how much work the artist had done locally.

"I had heard his name over the years, but I had no idea the depth of it," Stowell said. "So for me it was an eye opener."

His own path

Although he isn't an artist, Hal Baker learned a lot from Zornes.

"He gave me a view into something totally different," Baker said. "I'm from a very blue collar family, I don't know anything about art. I never tried to paint or draw or anything. So it was a completely different world for me."

Baker married Zornes' daughter and only child, Maria, in 1966. Today Baker is the manager of Zornes Art LLC, which oversees the painter's estate and works to preserve his legacy. Baker is also the author of Happiness is Warm Color in the Shade, a thorough biography of Zornes and his extensive paintings.

"[Zornes] was always focused on his work," Baker said. "I guess that's probably the best thing I can say. He got up in the morning and worked all day, sometimes until 10 or 11 o'clock at night. He was very focused on art."

When Zornes was born, Baker said, his mother looked at her newborn child and announced that he would one day become a famous artist. She would eventually be proven correct, although her son would find his own very distinct way of getting there.

That path took Zornes into many different professions and all across the globe. He studied architecture. He tried his hand at photography. He dabbled with being a writer and a journalist. He moved around, trying different jobs, almost always eventually finding himself dispirited with any formal structure he encountered.

click to enlarge SLOWLY FADING Zornes spent decades working non-stop as a painter, chronicling the California scenery. When he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, an incurable disease that severely impacts vision, he was devastated but continued to produce work. The impact of his disease is apparent in his later work. - IMAGE COURTESY OF MILFORD ZORNES
  • Image Courtesy Of Milford Zornes
  • SLOWLY FADING Zornes spent decades working non-stop as a painter, chronicling the California scenery. When he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, an incurable disease that severely impacts vision, he was devastated but continued to produce work. The impact of his disease is apparent in his later work.

It was in 1931 when Zornes made what was perhaps his most important change. He left the art institute in Pasadena and went to Pomona College. It was there that he met Millard Sheets, perhaps the most well known member of what was at the time an emerging group of landscape artists who would be collectively known as the California Scene Painters.

The California Scene Painters was a group of painters, many of them watercolorists, whose work celebrated the natural scenery and everyday life in the Golden State. The movement thrived from the 1920s through the 1960s and featured acclaimed artists such as Sheets, Phil Dike, Elsie Palmer Payne, Doug Kingman, Rex Brandt, and Zornes, who found his calling at Pomona working with Sheets.

"By then he knew art was what he wanted to do," Baker said. "Sheets was just six months older and was already established by the time Milford got to Pomona in 1931. Milford thought, 'If he could do this, so can I.'"

He took classes with Sheets and quickly got to know him and the other group of emerging artists in the California Scene Painters group. Zornes, following in his friends' and colleagues' footsteps, rose up in the scene fast, becoming a well-established member of the collective.

"They all got to know each other," Baker said. "They would all go to each other's homes for parties and dinners. There was a lot of camaraderie. They talked about painting and what they did. It was really an exciting time for [Zornes] to be associated with some established artists."

Another major influence on Zornes' life and work was the federal government. As a struggling artist in the Depression, Zornes saw little hope for earning a living at his craft. But in 1935, the government established the Federal Art Project, one of the biggest programs of The New Deal sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The goal of the program was to employ the nation's artists to create a massive portion of public art, including paintings, sculpture, and a series of public murals celebrating the spirit of the American working class. It was under this program that Zornes found respite from the crushing economic realities of the late 1930s.

"One of the things that Milford talked about the rest of his life after the Depression was the federal government's role in supporting artists through the WPA program," Baker said. "It kind of kept him alive as an artist. I'm not sure what he would have done if he hadn't been associated with the WPA."

Sheets was a regional administrator during that time. Zornes received monthly payments from the government to produce several paintings during the month. Baker said he never forgot the government's role and how it helped him survive. He staunchly believed the government should support and promote the arts and give people an opportunity to make a living that way.

It wasn't long after the Depression that Zornes' career began to thrive and he no longer needed the government to provide support for him. In 1942, Zornes was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, at the age of 34. He would spend the next few years serving as a war artist, a unique role that filled an important need for the Army at the time.

The official war art program began in 1917; during the 1940s, the U.S. military sent artists in its ranks to produce works of art that would serve as a record for major historical events. (Famed portrait artist John Singer Sargent was one of the most well known war artists.) Through his work with the Army, Zornes would travel to China, Burma, and India, dutifully painting scenes.

"Zornes went everywhere," Baker said. "He had carte blanche to do what he wanted to do. He went with the war correspondents when they traveled to write about different places, and he did paintings in all those areas."

He produced landscapes, paintings of ships, and numerous portraits of young soldiers stationed overseas. The Zornes family has spent the last three years working to track down many of the soldiers he painted.

A lasting impression

The war also meant the start of a slow transition from the California Scene Painters.

"By the time they came back from the second world war, they all still knew each other but their lives were going in different ways," Baker said. "Even though Milford still knew all of them, he was beginning to do his own thing."

It was then that Zornes' journey took him to Nipomo. In 1945, he returned from India and moved to the Central Coast with his wife, Pat, and their daughter, Maria. Zornes' parents lived in Nipomo and ran a store. His father owned a woodcutting business and owned some land on the west side of town.

Zornes' intention was to buy a house and a barn that he would convert to a studio. But by 1947 the family was off again, this time to Pomona Art College where he took a job as an instructor.

Despite the move, Zornes still kept his connections to the Central Coast, including running an annual workshop for the better part of a decade. Zornes and his wife visited Nipomo often, and he led a yearly workshop in Cambria, becoming well known as a teacher and mentor in the region.

click to enlarge ARTISTIC LEGACY Nipomo artist Milford Zornes spent his life painting, with a large part of that work focused on California landscapes. - PHOTO BY CHRIS GARDNER; COURTESY OF THE DANA ADOBE CULTURAL CENTER
  • Photo By Chris Gardner; Courtesy Of The Dana Adobe Cultural Center
  • ARTISTIC LEGACY Nipomo artist Milford Zornes spent his life painting, with a large part of that work focused on California landscapes.

"Milford did a lot of workshops and had an impact on a lot of other artists," Baker said. "That's probably the biggest thing, his mentorships and his workshops."

One of the artists who Zornes mentored and befriended through those workshops was Mike Grahek. Grahek met Zornes in the 1990s, through another art teacher who showed him a book of the artist's work.

"I had never seen his work before," Grahek said. "It was just so stunning and bold. So I knew I had to take his workshop."

The two artists painted frequently together, with Grahek fervently absorbing Zornes' tips and techniques as well as his outlook on art and the art world. They often traveled together, visiting places like Cuba where Grahek said his mentor would fill pages and pages of sketchbooks quickly and often run out of art supplies.

Grahek said Zornes carried on the tradition of the California Scene Painters, many of whom died long before him, throughout his entire life. Grahek said one thing that set Zornes apart from others in the movement was his steadfast refusal to change his style to suit contemporary trends or art market demands. While others adapted and evolved to sell art to younger audiences, Zornes remained stubborn.

"To his detriment, sometimes, he wouldn't change," Grahek said. "Even when the galleries urged him to change to suit more modern styles, he wouldn't. He said he believed in what he was doing and wouldn't change it to sell art."

His work did evolve over the years, Grahek noted, but not to appease the art market.

"I've worked with a lot of artists, and his drive and his passion to paint and express was just amazing," Grahek said. "He could paint all day long. I would get worn out. But he would just keep going and going. I didn't know how he did it."

As he approached his senior years, Zornes showed few signs of slowing down. He was always doing art somehow, somewhere, Baker recalled.

"When we traveled together, I'd look at Milford and he'd be looking out the window through his binoculars and he'd be drawing in a sketchbook," he said. "And he did that all day long. He was constantly drawing, painting, sketching."

But eventually something within Zornes did wear down.

Fading from view

Contrary to one's first guess, the shift in Zornes' style in his paintings was not due to a deliberate style or an experimentation with abstraction. In the late 1990s, Zornes was diagnosed with macular degeneration.

An incurable disease, macular degeneration attacks the portion of the retina where images are recorded and transferred from the eye to the brain. The disease ravages a person's ability to do everyday tasks such as drive or read and affects the ability to see fine details on objects and scenery.

For an artist such as Zornes, the disease can be earth shattering.

"He was devastated," Baker said. "His comment was, 'How can this happen to me? I'm an artist, I have to see.' That first year was very frustrating. We were very worried about him."

Baker said Zornes' wife was a source of strength and inspiration as he struggled to continue to paint and work as the disease slowly progressed. Over the next two decades of his life, he continued to paint, although it became a much more laborious process for him.

As the years went by, his productivity decreased, but Zornes still produced impressive and bold pieces of work. In his final years, he worked at a desk by his bed, sketching and painting watercolors daily. He died in 2008, leaving behind a massive body of work and a legacy as a mentor to dozens of other artists throughout the Central Coast and beyond.

"He never gave up," Baker said. "[Zornes] was always looking to paint that one perfect painting knowing he'd never get there. But he kept at it, right up until the end." Δ

Contact Sun Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose at rrose@santamariasun.com.

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