Carolyn Wing Greenlee

The Promised Painting (cont.)

In 2001, my friend Nathan and I attended Milford’s “last” workshop at the Utah ranch. The Zorneses had sold it after 30 good years of glorious scenery and plenty of room for Pat’s horses. Because I was working on a book on Milford, Nathan and I were video taping all of the workshop and critique sessions looking for great material for the text.

Days consisted of a demonstration and instruction, going to a stunning place, painting for hours, watching Milford do a demonstration on location, painting some more, then returning to the ranch for a critique of each piece. On this particular day, the location was the Grand Canyon.

How do you get something that vast to fit on a sheet of watercolor paper? This was our chance to work at finding a way. On a trip cross country with my parents, I’d seen the spires and gorges, the vibrant colors. I was just a little girl at the time, but I remembered. It was jaw-dropping.

Now, dragging my easel towards the rim, my mind was busy reviewing Milford’s morning instruction on approaching the impossible—amplification, simplification, exaggeration. But which of the multitudinous rock formations should I isolate, reducing the array to one clear statement that would convey to the viewer what it felt like to stand overlooking that daunting magnificence? I reached the rim and looked over the railing. Gray. Nothing but gray. The canyon was full of smoke.

We waited awhile for the smoke to lift. It didn’t so Nate and I got back into the car and drove to the spot that Milford would be doing his demonstration. Maybe the smoke would be thinner there. It wasn’t. Nonetheless, Milford was already seated before his easel, a pristine sheet of watercolor paper lying there looking as blank as the scenery before us. Nate and I set up our tripods, fastened the video cameras down tight, pointed them at Milford and wondered what he was going to do. When the workshop painters were gathered there in a semi-circle around him, he looked up and said, “I was here yesterday doing some sketches.” That meant he had spent hours peering through high-powered binoculars until his dim peripheral vision had given him a sense of the shapes and forms. His macular degeneration had progressed to the point that he had no central vision and the doctor said, though he would never go completely blind, it would be close.

Milford told me he had spent a year in depression before he decided to resume living. We had our blindness in common. Both of us had struggled with it. Both had decided to keep doing our work. Each of us found a way. He developed the binocular method of seeing his subject, and a painting posture that was almost parallel to the paper. I had lost most of my peripheral vision, but could still see details in my central vision. All details to Milford were in the blank space in his eyes. And now he sat beside an ocean of pale gray smoke.

Milford held up a sketch from the day before, saying he had decided to paint the Grand Canyon in autumn. Sheer red-brown rocks appeared, echoing the same flat tops and severely eroded slopes as they receded into the distance. He brought forth a glorious tree in reds, oranges, and gold. By the time the few rich strokes of deepest green had become trees, I was completely conquered. The truth of the matter was there was nothing to see but smoke, yet Milford had spent so many years looking carefully at trees and rocks and cliffs that he knew what was there and his hand knew where to go to get the right colors, brushing them into the forms his mind desired. He made something out of nothing that day, He could see it in his mind, and he made it visible to the rest of us. Suddenly, I knew which of all of Milford’s pictures I wanted to claim as the Promised Painting. I chose the one that would remind me always that things you had looked at enough were still yours even when your eyes were no longer able to see them.

Recently, Hal Baker sent me this quote saying, “This appears to be something Milford wrote sometime in the 2000’s, but at least since he started to lose his eyesight.”

I do not see well now as I did before. It is useless to complain and I have. It is sad not to see one’s world bright and clear as I did once. but time has been when seeing was mostly looking out and now it is looking in.

I like to draw with lines that are short, hopefully sound and vertically able. Curves I enjoy for the direction they take. But angles I watch like a sharp sighted hawk for all the mischief they make. Some wonder how I can paint and draw when I cannot read or drive and scarcely write. But from memory.

I’m posting this story on my 64th birthday. I always teased Milford that he was just two days older than I. During this week of celebrating his life, I am thankful again for what he taught me. Often they were life lessons I observed from what he did and who he was. When he was reviewing our work at the end of the day, he always put each painting in a mat first. The mat made a surprising difference. It made me take the painting more seriously. Then he would point out all the strengths of the picture before he began explaining what could be done to make it stronger. From that I learned that you must be kind when you critique someone’s work, but you must also be truthful, for truth without kindness is not really truth, and kindness without truth is not really kind. But I am most grateful that I had years of talking with him, collecting his thoughts and stories, and watching his ways. I knew him pretty well and, because I did, I can still see him, I can still hear him, and I can make him visible to others through these memories.

Milford Zornes at work on the Promised Painting
Carolyn with the Promised Painting (photo: courtesy, Museum of History and Art, Ontario, CA)

In October of 2006, the Museum of History and Art in Ontario was having a multiple-event Open House. My dad and I were doing a book signing, Bill Anderson and Milford were there for the opening of their exhibit, and it turned out to be a time of remembering Maricarmen, the curator with whom I had cooked up so many fun events over the years. For a long time Mari had been wanting to have an exhibit of Milford’s paintings, and for just as long, she had been after me to get a Zornes painting donated to the museum. On that day, I gave the Promised Painting to the museum in her honor.

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