At the time of Milford Zorne's 97th birthday party (2005,) the CCAA had a temporary museum in the banquet rooms behind the J. Filippi Winery tasting room on Baseline Rd in Cucamonga, CA. (http://josephfilippiwinery.com/store/)
Most people are not aware that the whole region had a history of vineyards and winemaking dating back to the era of the Spanish land grant Ranchos. In fact, I remember Indianapolis 500 champion Parnelli Jones telling the story of how the now legendary Ontario Motor Speedway was created in a land speculation to plow over acres of vineyards in 1970.
Anyway, we arrived at the winery and found our way to the back rooms where the organization and supporters had already set up and guests were still arriving. We had time to interview a few of the more celebrated artists like sculptor John Edward Svenson (http://www.svensonarts.com/) who had some magnificent creations in wood on display.
It was a very friendly crowd and a joyous atmosphere. The walls had some of the Chaffey Community Art Association's permanent collection on display along with at least a dozen of Milford Zornes' watercolors featured prominently. We were beginning to get a little worried by Zornes' late arrival. Naturally, our concern was that at 97 he might be so infirm he may not show--or that if he did, he would be too feeble to interview. Our fears were completely unfounded.
We were in the back of the gallery when he arrived and instantly the buzz grew as everyone piled into the front room. With camera rolling, we were swept along in the crowd to observe all the hugging and kissing from old friends and fellow artists as Milford inched through the room. He was a head above everyone, even with the stooped shoulders of 97 years, and walked with a fashionable cane. Dapperly dressed in black with a black shirt and black silk tie, he was deservedly the center of attention. As we could come to find out, he was surrounded by lifelong friends, fellow artists and loving supporters. This was his community showing its love. We didn't have a great view but the speeches were short and the candles on the cake were out before we knew it. Then everybody adjourned to the gallery area where after a short introduction, Milford Zornes proceeded to give a lecture.
We were surprised by his stamina and enthusiasm as he took the microphone and started talking. Now, mind you, he was deliberate in speech and had a raspiness to his voice which advanced age often brings, but Milford Zornes was holding forth in his element. You could tell he enjoyed speaking—and the crowd was extremely attentive. As he shared stories and his philosophy you could see that he was a teacher at heart. He loved what he did and he wanted to share it with the world, both through his paintings and his lectures. Each painting he did had a story —not just about the subject but about Milford's experience or his technique or why he did it. And each story seemed to have a lesson for the rest of us. He wasn't preachy or didactic and you couldn't really call it a lecture. He was just sharing. Isn't that the best kind of teacher?
We had to look at our watch to realize he spoke for over 30 minutes! At 97 years old! Of course, being pushy TV types we asked for an interview after his talk. We were not sure if he would hold up for a long interview but were pleased when he said yes. So we re-arranged the chairs and the lighting just a little and rolled the camera. Without missing a beat Milford went for another 40 minutes! At 97 years old!
No question, we were hooked. An icon of the world of watercolor who had rocked the world in the 1930's and then went on to a long (to put it mildly) and fruitful career had captured our imagination. Milford Zornes, member of the National Academy (as VP Joe Biden would have said, that's a big deal) was still active, still interesting and still productive. He opened up and generously shared his story, and himself. And we felt like we were instant friends. Which, of course, is the way he made everyone feel.
Over the next three years, until his death, we met with him a number of times, filming in his home studio, at a museum lecture and more. He was always the amenable, friendly, generous man we met that first night.