Born in a rural region of western Oklahoma, his family later moved to Idaho and then to the San Fernando Valley. Once on his own, he went to the community college in Santa Maria, California, and then studied architecture for a while in San Francisco. Though he had learned to draw in early childhood and had been encouraged to pursue a career in art, he remained uncertain of his goals. Leaving school, he hitchhiked around the country, then spent a brief time at sea, with an interlude of wandering about in Europe, and then, about 1930, finally began studying art at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles—choosing that school because the ship on which he'd returned to California had been called the Marion Otis Chandler, and the Otis Art Institute had been founded by the Chandlers and was located in their former house. A mere three years later his work was being exhibited at the Corcoran, and one of his paintings was selected by President and Mrs. Roosevelt for display at the White House.
There's this surpassing oddness to the whole narrative (or what I've read of it so far) which I find irresistibly engaging. It's also full of lines I find fascinating, such as this fragmentary answer to the interviewer's question about what interests Zornes had in childhood, which remains unfinished because the interviewer's first tape ran out in the middle of it:
" I think, actually, about the only interest I can recall was that I wanted to travel. Even now, if you go back to Oklahoma, western Oklahoma, it’s sorta rolling, flat country and if you stand on a relatively high place, the world gets to be a blue line in the distance and I somehow still have the . . ."He did end up travelling, not only during his youth but throughout his life, painting and giving watercolor workshops all over the world. He might be travelling still, as I've found no indication anywhere on the Internet that he is not still living.
Here's a page at a commercial gallery which displays a number of Zornes' paintings (it's one of those sites where the images show up as thumbnails, but the entire full-sized files are being downloaded (a couple of MB worth) and go popup when you click on them.)