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The Enduring Mysteries of Zorthian Ranch

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Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.

This year marks a very special anniversary in Altadena, California's history.

Nestled in the foothills of Fair Oaks Avenue up a windy dirt road, lies the infamous 48-acre art junkyard Zorthian Ranch where resident artists milk goats and make cheese, and hundreds of notable people (including Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Charlie Parker, Segovia, Richard Feynman, and many more) have gathered to exchange ideas and celebrate life and times with its erstwhile proprietor, Jirayr Zorthian.

It was 10 years ago in January that Jirayr left his legacy the self-built "Z Ranch" in the hands of Alice and Alan, his children from his second wife, Dabney. Today, the ranch is less like a wasteland of art history, and more like a constant work-in-progress. In 1992, on Zorthian's 81st birthday, Jirayr said he had "Forty more years of work to do here, so I would have to live till 120 years old. I don't have time to die." He believed that art was not life, but a religion. "Art becomes more important than ourselves," he expressed in videos and interviews that overfill five milk crates at the Zorthian home. Jirayr was prolific, creating and building until three months before he died in January 2004. When asked if his father's work has been finished, Alan quickly responds, "No, I really haven't finished his work. It's like Gaudi's 'Sagrada Familia.'" It's a constantly evolving process.

Jirayr Zorthian

Jirayr Zorthian was infamous in Southern California for his bacchanalian parties at the Ranch. In a taped interview with Jirayr, and corroborated by his daughter Seyburn, now a painter in Santa Barbara; they recall the story of an evening in 1952 when legendary saxophonist, Charlie Parker (aka Bird), performed. Impromptu music studio sessions took place all the time there and one night, Julie MacDonald, a prominent sculptor in Pasadena and alleged "west coast girlfriend" of Charlie Parker, brought him and his band to Zorthian's ranch. There was an attractive woman dancing to the jam, and Jirayr encourages a striptease by taking his top off, Bird then drops his pants, and by the end of the session, two-thirds of the people are dancing naked. "The rest is left to your imagination," Seyburn laughs. This is nearly two decades before Woodstock and half-a-century before video-recording cell phones; these events would not be easily caught on tape, but this one was.

Live, raw and unadulterated, one can hear the calls to "Take it off, take it off" in the background of the 77-minute tape which was sold to Pasadena jazz music collector, John Burton, for safekeeping. "We want to release the recording with a DVD of Jirayr telling this story. I'm a Charlie Parker fanatic and I've never seen this story annotated in any Bird or jazz literature." Could you imagine Bird and a bunch of people playing and dancing naked on a ranch in the 1950's? "My father was able to bring such wonderful and interesting people around because he himself was a big personality," Seyburn adds.

Artist John Outterbridge went to countless parties at the ranch. Outterbridge met Jirayr having been studio neighbors, in what was then, the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). "You could do anything up in the ranch, and be whoever you are," the artist says with a grin. One party Outterbridge will not forget was for the East West exhibit with Andy Warhol's soup cans installation. "Warhol came into the gallery with a beautiful black girl on his right and beautiful white girl on his left, dressed in kitchen aprons - you could see right through them [Outterbridge giggles]. About 1,000 people came to that show, and the after-party was at the Ranch. The Zorthian Ranch had a reputation for entertaining a lot of people."

One of the most anticipated annual parties at Z Ranch was Jirayr's spring birthday party, called "Primavera". One of the main features was a skit where Jirayr would lay on a chaise lounge, and eight nude "nymphs" would dance around him. "My father loved to stage" Seyburn exclaims, "He started the parties when he was 80... and had them until he died at 92 years old!"


Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman was Jirayr's best friend and regular visitor to the ranch. In Feynman's autobiography, "Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," he writes about the long discussions that he and Jirayr (whom friends called Jerry) would have about art and science.

Jirayr Zorthian, Bret Davenport, Feynman
Jirayr Zorthian, Feynman, Zorthian boys

"Listen, Jerry," I said, "the reason we have these arguments that never get anywhere is that you don't know a damn thing about science, and I don't know a damn thing about art. So, on alternate Sundays, I'll give you a lesson in science, and you give me a lesson in art."

"OK," he [Jerry] said. "I'll teach you how to draw."

Feynman thought it would be impossible to learn how to draw. Still, he worked hard at it, and to his surprise, got to a point where he could "tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that's not." He even succeeded in selling some of his drawings. Feynman said Jirayr was a very good teacher, but given all the hours they spent teaching each other at Z Ranch, the artist didn't learn much physics. The new argument then became: Was Jirayr a better teacher than Feynman, or was Feynman a better student than Jirayr was?

To distinguish "Caltech Professor Feynman" from the amateur artist, he signed his drawings with the alias, "Ofey," but did not avoid erudite titles like "The Magnetic Field of the Sun" and "Madame Curie Observing the Radiations from Radium." To his disbelief, people bought his drawings and he was even commissioned to do a drawing for a local business. It was these experiences that helped him answer a big question: "But is it art?"

"I understood at last what art is really for, at least in certain respects. It gives somebody, individually, pleasure. You can make something that somebody likes so much that they're depressed, or they're happy, on account of that damn thing you made! In science, it's sort of general and large: You don't know the individuals who have appreciated it directly."

Decades after those initial lessons between Feynman and Zorthian, their art & science collaboration lived on, documented in the 2008 Armory Center (Pasadena, CA) exhibit called "Jirayr Zorthian/Richard Feynman: A Conversation in Art."

Jirayr Zorthian, was an Armenian massacre survivor who came to the U.S. in 1923 at the age of twelve." I remember something my father said when we came to this country, 'what a wonderful, beautiful country -- how abundant, how rich, but how much they waste,'" Jirayr has expressed in numerous interviews.

Jirayr Zorthian lived much of his young adult life on the east coast, earning a Masters of Fine Art at Yale and achieving national recognition as a painter with 42 massive murals placed across the country. The state of Tennessee even bequeathed him the title of Colonel in 1987 because of his 11 murals placed in the state capitol building in 1938. Jirayr would tease his brother, an officer, that he earned the honorary title of Colonel not for fighting in military combat, but "with a stroke of a pen."

Colonel Certificate

In 1946 at the age of 35, he and his first wife Betty, moved to Altadena and purchased 6-acres of land where they raised their 3 children, Toby, Seyburn, and Barry. Sharing his father's opinion about American wastefulness, Jirayr put the land to use in a non-traditional and resourceful way; salvaging discarded columns, cast iron, broken concrete, and wood from derelict and demolished buildings. This went on for decades, as he was continuously building structures and art pieces from these repurposed household items, spare parts, relics, trucks, taxidermy, etc.

Spare Parts

The Zorthian family always lived in the main house (est. 1933); and the lot over time expanded to its current 48-acres. Despite having a good relationship with the County of Los Angeles, Jirayr built what he wanted, whenever he wanted, rarely waiting for a building permit. The first two buildings he physically put together were The Chardhouse and The Studio made from redwood requisitioned from demolished craftsman homes and discarded telephone poles. In the early 70's, he built what he called The Palace with steps made from old railroad ties, and windows decorated by telephone poles and insulators.

Palace Door
Chardhouse Ceiling

Zorthian described his ranch as "The Center for Research and Development of Industrial Discards with the Emphasis on Aesthetics." This meant he didn't salvage just anything. He carefully selected what came onto the ranch with one basic requirement: it had to be hand-made. Jirayr built with his own two hands; an artist without any architecture or engineering background. He turned waste into art, and his land & property into an open art gallery and center.

Beyond the "junkyard" is a rich history that son Alan is keen to preserve and protect. The Zorthian siblings have made concerted efforts to keep a recorded history of their family's work, and have photographs of their father's murals in humidity controlled containers. As to where some of the original ones are, like the "Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training," they have no idea. While converting this photographed mural to a digital format, Alan emphasizes, "We would love to know where it is! It's a 157-foot mural documenting the process of people in training preceding the formation of the CIA."

Jirayr Zorthian Mural "Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training" (missing/unknown location)
Jirayr Zorthian Mural "Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training" (missing/unknown location)
Zorthian Color Study

Today, "Z Ranch" is what the name conveys, a functioning ranch with organic gardens, poultry coops, beehives & honeycombs (used to make Zor-honey) and horse stables; they even source their own spring water from Chicita Canyon. Still, this back-to-land community is not necessarily a self-sustaining one. Alan is seriously looking into renting out other unique areas of the ranch through online travel sites, like AirBNB, that publicize alternative hotels and promote agritourism and permaculture.

A living, breathing, ever changing artist community, Z Ranch has a long history of being home to dozens of artists, musicians, and bohemians. There are consistently 10 spaces made of reusable, reinvented waste that get rented out. Among them, Funky Unit A, Funky Unit B, Airstream Trailer... you get the idea.

In The Pig House is Zeth D., a visual effects artist and Z Ranch resident for a little over two years. He often considers leaving Los Angeles to raise his two-year-old daughter outside of the populous city; but the ranch allows him to keep her immersed in a quiet natural environment, and still close to the city, where he needs to be professionally.

Zeth Pig House