Carolyn Wing Greenlee

The Starving Artist

Hal Baker sent me these stories written by his father-in-law, master painter Milford Zornes, N.A.

Story 1 from 1957

Several years ago I was an instructor at The Old Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. At that time also, as is not too uncommon with artists, I was deeply in debt to a certain money lending organization and at the moment finding it hard to meet a payment.

One day when I arrived for an afternoon life class, I was met outside the entrance of the class room by a smart young man who quite ceremoniously identified himself as a collector for the above mentioned organization.

Unprepared as I was, I gave him a fast promise that I would talk to him as soon as I had met my class.

Assuming that he would stay where he was, I proceeded to go inside to give instructions to the model and to discuss the afternoon’s work with my students.

When I finally turned to go out to my visitor I was startled to see him standing in the back of the room staring in rapt attention at the beautiful nude figure of our female model.

Inspiration for my maneuver came in a flash. In feigned but unconcealed anger I practically lifted him out of the door by the collar while telling him in emphatic terms that no one other than registered students were allowed in the room.

The experience so rattled the young gentleman that he left in flustered confusion, forgetting to hit me for the money.

Story 2

As is tradition with artists, I have, as a painter and teacher of art, seen many ups and downs of fortune.

Once many years ago I  borrowed forty dollars at the Citizens Bank in my home town of Claremont, California. I was unable to pay this note when it was due and for several weeks I was subject to some progressively urgent demands for payment. One day I received a check from Henry Morgenthau, Jr. then treasurer of the United States, who had bought a watercolor of mine from an exhibition in the East.

When I presented the check at the bank to pay my debt, Mr. Belchar, the Vice President, was duly impressed by the Morgenthau signature.

“Well Zornes,” he said “It just goes to show if you are pushed hard enough for money you go right to the source.”

Several things strike me about these two stories, not the least of which is Milford’s humorous telling of these stressful and humiliating times. He was already famous by the 1950s with paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other major art museums as well as having had a painting hand-picked by President and Mrs. Roosevelt to hang in the White House. Yet, there he was, being hounded for $40. Of course, that was a lot more money back then, but Milford was an honest and honorable man and it must have weighed on his soul to be in debt.

My mother used to say to me, “If only you were rich and famous. Then I wouldn’t worry about your future.” When I reminded her of the biography we had just watched of a Hollywood star who had destroyed his life with the trappings of fame, she sniffed and replied, “Well, then, just be rich.” I’m not sure that would be best for my work—or my heart. If you don’t think about dying someday, your life doesn’t have an accurate perspective. In truth, no matter how much money you have, there is always the threat of loss. And then there’s death. When the tourist asked the city guide, “How much did J.D. Rockefeller leave behind when he died?” the guide replied, “All of it.”

I will never be the quality of artist that Milford Zornes was, but I have a little acclaim for my poetry and books—enough to pass this message on to those who think, “If only I could get published” (or a recording contract or on a talk show on TV). I suppose the title “Poet Laureate” confers some status of having achieved a certain excellence in work, just as “N.A.” is a huge honor. I remember when Milford received it. His wife Pat explained that there were only 200 artists in that elite membership at a time. You couldn’t get one, no matter how good you were, unless someone died and the National Academy voted you in. It was a coveted honor and Milford had received it, but he still had to sell paintings in order to pay his bills. He never lost the humility of depending on buyers who fell in love with his work.

So, back to my words of wisdom to the aspiring whatever— If you’re writing to be published, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. You have to have something to say, and the drive never leaves you alone whether anyone else ever reads it. Milford said that art provides something you’re missing in your life. In his case, he said everything three feet from him was chaos, but when he stood in front of a sheet of watercolor paper, he had complete control. He alone created the order, the message. He needed to paint for his sanity’s sake.

Milford did not call himself an artist. He said he was a painter. To him, the title “artist” was conferred over time when the value of the work had been proven by its appeal to the citizens of eras beyond its own. Milford’s paintings have been chosen by museums and homes for nine decades. I look at the ones on my walls every day and never get tired of them. Truth is like that. Milford spent his life seeking ways to communicate it. Because of that, I believe his work has depth that goes on forever. And I even believe the awareness of always being on the edge of not making it with your painting contributed to that truth—I’m doing this because I must, and I hope it speaks to you as well.

En la playa Isla de Maria (Milford Zornes, 1974)

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