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Serving the Sunlit Muse

Metropolis / Snapshots from the center of the universe

Watercolor Painting Met Its Match in Southern California

May 11, 2003|GINNY CHIEN

Watercolorist Milford Zornes keeps coming back to Southern California even though his father once accused him "of having no ambition other than to go someplace," he says. The Claremont resident is indeed a fanatical traveler, schlepping his easel to such places as Uganda, India and Cuba. But Zornes' heart has always led him back to the region he has called home since 1925.

In January, Zornes, who still paints, celebrated his 95th birthday. The Pasadena Museum of California Art is marking the milestone with an exhibit and the premiere of an NBC documentary. The 27 paintings on view include scenes from Greenland, Baja and even aboard the S.S. Steven H. Long. (Zornes was drafted into the Army during World War II and ended up painting for the war department.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Watercolorist documentary -- In an article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine ("Serving the Sunlit Muse"), it was incorrectly stated that a documentary on watercolorist Milford Zornes was created by NBC. The documentary was produced independently by Laurel Erickson, who is an NBC4 reporter.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 01, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
The story "Serving the Sunlit Muse" (Metropolis, May 11) incorrectly stated that NBC created a documentary on watercolorist Milford Zornes. Laurel Erickson, who is an NBC4 reporter, produced the documentary independently.

But Southern California's sunny climate is a chief muse for Zornes, as shown in vibrant landscapes depicting quintessential locales such as Mt. Baldy and San Diego. A highlight is "Laguna Shoreline," which captures a scenic beachfront through bright color washes of varying shades of blue. Zornes skillfully sets up the composition so that unpainted paper shines through as the white ocean foam. "Many people consider this his masterpiece," says museum director Wesley Jessup. "He has really captured that outdoor feeling--the light, the water, all of the elements unique to this area, which is what a lot of his paintings are about."

Zornes' work invokes the California Style, a school that revolutionized watercolors by using them as a primary medium and showcasing their bold, expressive qualities. Along with Millard Sheets, Emil Kosa and others, he helped pioneer the movement during the Great Depression. Zornes met Sheets, a teacher at Scripps College, while he was an art student in the early '30s at neighboring Pomona College. "We didn't know we were a movement at that time," says Zornes, the last surviving member of the group. "We were just a bunch of people trying to paint pictures."

Although the Oklahoma-born artist dabbled in other careers, including working as a freelance writer and newsreel cameraman, none of them stuck. Zornes, whose mother taught him how to draw as a child, earned money during the difficult Depression years by selling portraits to better-off families who wanted mementos of their children or pets.

Zornes gained national recognition in 1934 when President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt selected his "Old Adobe" painting for the White House, after seeing the "Public Works of Art" exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Zornes' work is in the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has also held teaching positions at Otis College of Art and Design and Pomona College, and organized watercolor workshops around the world, from Sumatra to Arkansas.

Despite his achievements, Zornes remains humble. "I think I could look at myself as being the absolute prototype of a struggling painter," he says. "But now I have the unique experience of being 95 years old and having the best time of my life. I'm finally getting around to where I can earn a living through my paintings and enjoy a career out of it."

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"Milford Zornes: A California Watercolorist at 95," through Aug. 31 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena; (626) 568-3665.

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