ALTADENA — The treasures weren’t so much swept under the rug as inside it.
Jeff Rack was clearing out a storage area in Altadena’s storied Zorthian Ranch three years ago when he came upon rolls of old carpet on the floor.
“I pulled them out and these were stuck amongst them,” the set and production designer said. “I looked and saw they were amazing pieces, some damaged. I said, ‘We’ve got to save these.’”
What Rack found were heretofore unseen original mural studies, the first renderings of full-scale murals drawn by artist Jirayr Zorthian, the Yale-educated painter and craftsman famous not only for his art but his bohemian lifestyle and 48-acre Altadena ranch.
Rack’s find has found its way to public view, as the Zorthian family has decided to show them.
“Visions of America — The Mural Art of Jirayr Zorthian (1936-45)” is set from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 15, 16, 22 and 23, at the Zorthian Ranch, 3696 Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena. Admission and parking are free. All are welcome.
The Zorthian family will also give guided tours during exhibit hours. Tours are also free, but donations accepted. Wear comfortable shoes.
Alan Zorthian, an architect and the estate’s administrator, said the discovery prompted him to wag a figurative finger at his eccentric dad.
“He would yell at me and lecture me to take good care of my drawings, and when Jeff showed me what he found, I said, ‘Well, look at him now,” he said. “He didn’t see them as something he had to preserve, even though to us they’re just amazing.”
To round off the show, he and Rack assembled an assortment of other mural studies, as well as an actual work completed in Zorthian’s Yale days, “Cortez in Mexico.”
The exhibit in the Zorthian Barn Gallery focuses on the artist’s murals, 42 total, commissioned under President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA Project during the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration put artists to work and placed art in public places for the masses to enjoy, Rack said.
“The Development Of Light” mural study on exhibit on Thursday, October 13, 2022. An assortment of Jirayr Zorthian’s original mural art studies will be on display in the Zorthian Barn Gallery, some of which became completed full-scale murals as part of the WPA Project. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG
That’s how Zorthian’s classically-trained skills focused on vignettes of American history later displayed at churches, hotels, post offices, and homes.
The show also features a mystery. Zorthian said his crowning work was a large, serial mural 157-feet long and four-feet high commissioned by the U.S. Army in 1945. Titled “Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training,” the masterpiece mural is lost and the Zorthian family is working with branches of the government to track it down.
Studies and photographic plates of the missing mural are part of the exhibit.
Artist Seyburn Zorthian said her father had a massive scrapbook his children loved to look at, ranging back to when her father was a 6-year-old in Armenia.
“I admire his discipline,” she said. “He had to work hard to graduate from Yale School of Fine Arts and attain a fellowship to Europe to study for a year.”
After World War II, Alan Zorthian said the Altadena ranch became his father’s canvas. Zorthian arrived in 1946 and died there in 2004. He was 92.
A photograph of Jirayr Zorthian on display on Thursday, October 13, 2022. An assortment of Jirayr Zorthian’s original mural art studies will be on display in the Zorthian Barn Gallery, some of which became completed full-scale murals as part of the WPA Project. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG
Dubbed “The Last Bohemian,” the artist called his home “The Center for Research and Development of Industrial Discards with the Emphasis on Aesthetics.” His friends, including jazzman Charlie Parker and artist Andy Warhol partied there.
“There were always interesting people sitting in our living room, talking and arguing,” Alan Zorthian said. “He liked to drink cheap wine and talk to top-of-the-line people.”
He remembers Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman pretending to be a radio to entertain his sister Alice and him.
“My sister and I would tweak his ear or pull his nose to change the station,” Zorthian said. “Tweak. There’d be an ad. Tweak, a song. To me, all of it was normal.”
Seyburn Zorthian said their father continued to work in his studio most of his life.
“It was only the tragic loss of his eyesight from macular degeneration late in life that stopped him from being able to do the detail work and steady line required for his figure drawings,” she said. “He considered being an artist the most important pursuit but spoke often about the importance of working steadily, not just occasionally.”
For Rack, the new exhibit showcases one part of the man who was a young survivor of the Armenian genocide, a 9-year-old immigrant who learned to be tough and scrappy in Connecticut, and the successful artist, husband, father, teacher and even, grand marshal of the 1997 Doo Dah Parade.
“I am getting to know him through his art,” Rack said. “His art style evolved here. He broke from his training and dabbled in all these different things. People who come here are amazed and inspired and say they didn’t know this place existed.”
An item in the exhibit, under glass, is Zorthian’s leather hat with a real snakeskin band, pinned all around with items the artist selected, reminders of groups he joined or the many summers he and his wife Dabney turned their ranch into a summer camp for children.
Event coordinator, Chris Agazaryan, Alan Zorthian and curator, Jeff G. Rack talk about the exhibit at the barn on Thursday, October 13, 2022. An assortment of Jirayr Zorthian’s original mural art studies will be on display in the Zorthian Barn Gallery, some of which became completed full-scale murals as part of the WPA Project. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG
Even though the ice cream truck never could make it up to the ranch, and he showed up to school with hay in his hair from feeding the horses, Alan Zorthian, who now shares legacy-tending with his daughters, said he sees now that the stuff of his childhood was enriched by the figure of his father.
He was a giant, temperamental talent, a good dad, and a great teacher with a bottomless capacity to have fun, he said, “He mastered the art of life.”
For more information, visit zorthianranch.com.
Alan Zorthian to lead the Doo Dah Parade as 2013 grand marshal – Pasadena Star News
The Enduring Mysteries of Zorthian Ranch | Artbound | Armenians in America | KCET
Larry Wilson: Homage to a bohemian past – Daily Breeze