Folk Festival at Zorthian Ranch

In 1965 I attended a party at the Zorthian Ranch with my childhood friend, Nancy Hamren (whose grandmother owned the recipe for Nancy’s Yogurt) and Barry and Seyburn Zorthian, the daughter’s of the artist, Jirayr H. Zorthian, who was influenced by Thomas Hart Benton. Thomas is the cousin of the muralist, Garth Benton who married my late sister, the world famous artist, Christine Rosamond Benton. These four women and myself would live in a commune in San Fancisco, our rent paid by Betty Zorthian, the heiress of the William’s Shave fortune. Seyburn is an artist.

Zorthian and I discussed art up in his studio while beautiful young L.A. Godesses soared on the trampoline to ‘Gloria’.

We also partied at Betty’s mansion in Pasadena where she kept horses. We dropped LSD that was legal at the time. I did a psychedelic cowboy shoot-out routine with Toby Zorthian’s gun he had for quick-draw lessons he was taking. I did the slow-mo-draw, where the bullet would come out of the barrel real slow, and do very curious things on the way to a cosmic target where it was swallowed up in a parallel universe. I had folks in stiches in my peace-time play on a deadly weapon turned into an instrument of Cosmic Love!

Nancy dated Stanely Augustus Owlsley, and with Christine, they went on a date with Nick Sands who was also a manufacturer of LSD.

Jirayr Zorthian was the Grand Marshall of the Doo Day Parade that may have inspired the Eugene Celebrations Parade. The New Los Angeles Folk Festival reminds me of the Eugene Folk Festival. Our Mayor should declare Altadena our Sister City and conduct a culture swap. Hip folks could stay in L.A. while those folks stay in Eugene.

In this video of Them, note the sour look on some folks faces who understand this is black blues music from America. This look is shot at President Obama by Catholics who believe condoms should not be discussed in public, because it dulls the flow of their halos.

Jon Presco

PASADENA — Col. Jirayr H. Zorthian, a larger- than-life painter and sculptor whose trash-strewn hilltop ranch has played host to hordes of intellectuals, artists, and naked nymphs over the past half- century, died Tuesday afternoon. He was 92.

Zorthian’s reputation as an eccentric artist and socialite has grown into myth over the last decade, as he celebrated each new birthday surrounded by nude models who dangled grapes into his mouth.

“He was alive. He was a living person who was bouncing and curious and excited about life,’ said his widow, Dabney, who married Zorthian in 1957. “He made my life quite marvelous.’

Zorthian’s health has been failing for the past several months. In early November, he hosted the coronation of the Doo Dah Queen at the Zorthian Ranch in Altadena. He spent most of the evening seated by the bonfire, watching delightedly as contestants stripped, flashed, danced and sang amid a festive atmosphere of music and alcohol.

He was admitted to the hospital shortly thereafter, and missed the Doo Dah Parade. He was readmitted on Saturday night, and died shortly after noon Tuesday of congestive heart failure.

“He was the most fun-loving madcap sprite I have ever known,’ said Pasadena spokeswoman Ann Erdman, who has been to many parties at the ranch over the past 10 years.

“Pasadena without Zorthian that doesn’t make any sense right now,’ said Tom Coston, director of the Light-Bringer Project, and coordinator of the Doo Dah Parade.

Funeral arrangements are pending. In addition to his wife, Zorthian is survived by a brother, Barry, five children, Barry, Seyburn, Toby, Alan and Alice, and several grandchildren.

The locally fabled yet relatively unknown Zorthian Ranch in Altadena served as the idyllic pastoral venue for Saturday’s New Los Angeles Folk Festival, a one-day event that brought together 28 bands and solo artists and included the emerging and established as well as the traditional and experimental from L.A.’s folk music scene and beyond to the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The 45-acre ranch, home to eclectic artist Jiryar Zorthian until his death in 2004, was for decades a bohemian haven frequented by local celebrities, artists and musicians, but has sat largely neglected for the last few years. That wasn’t the case this weekend.
The lineup, which featured headliners Spindrift, Amanda Jo Williams, Frank Fairfield and Djinn Aquarian, offered traditional folk fare while challenging the notion of what defines the genre. “People talk about punk music as the DIY scene, the alternative scene, the underground scene, but I think this is just as important. And to me, folk and punk are almost the same thing, just remove some symbols,” festival founder Daiana Feuer said regarding the festival’s defiance of conventional parameters, one that extended to the location.
After a 10-minute hike up to the hillside retreat (for those who didn’t want to brave the precarious ride up the narrow road in the festival shuttle), attendees walked through the ranch’s vast sea of junkyard treasures, stopping to contemplate the numerous curiosities that filled the landscape from decrepit trucks and weathered midcentury farm equipment to purposeful installations that included Zorthian’s best known structure, an elephant constructed from burlap, rope, buckets and a fire hose, featuring a papier-mâché missionary’s head inside the animal’s stomach.

The rusted relics stood in stark contrast against an awe-inspiring panoramic view of surrounding canyons as children slid down a giant water slide and splashed in the ranch pool. Small crowds of parents, aging hippies and young hipsters gathered around the festival’s four stages, which were spread throughout the ranch and naturally provided by the property itself.
Performers led by local experimental artist Nicole Disson, dressed in a medley of overalls, velvet jackets, large-brimmed hats and feathers, dubbed themselves the “Zorthians” and spent the afternoon playing practical jokes on visitors as a welcome to the ranch. A horse corral, a chicken coup, llamas and goats completed the nostalgic rural setting, taking attendees back to a slower-paced, easier time where the deer and the antelope played, so to speak.  
And that was just the mood Feuer was hoping to evoke by holding the event at the Zorthian Ranch. Now in her second year organizing the festival, which she co-founded with James Cartwright, Feuer sought to take attendees out of their daily lives by holding the musical celebration in an unusual setting. “I want to create experiences that feel like a mini-vacation but within Los Angeles,” Feuer said.
Psychedelic country fare from Spindrift and Stevenson Ranch Davidians was juxtaposed with the urban-folk sound of Emily Lacy and the pop-folk grooves of Radical Face. Legend Ruthann Friedman was followed by electronic composers and singer-songwriters Julia Holter and Ramona Gonzalez, a.k.a. Night Jewel.
“New folk, or what I call new folk, is experimental music,” Feuer said, “The female songwriters I have here, they use electronics, they use acoustic, they use objects. It’s not about doing anything old-time. It’s about making good music that brings people together. That’s how I would define folk music, music that really gives people that space to be themselves and to feel good.”
Echoing Feuer’s sentiment, musicians playing the festival seemed to embrace the genre’s evolutionary progression. “Folk music comes from people, for people so it’ll always change,” reflected Amanda Jo Williams, a local staple of the local country-folk scene. “It’s not an old thing. It’ll just ride along. It can be new and it can be future.”

The story of Buttonwood Winery originated many years ago when founder Betty Williams left her New Orleans home and moved west to California. She lived in Pasadena in Southern California and eventually earned a law degree from USC. She also married and raised a family of three children and became an expert horsewoman. At one point, Betty Williams chose to escape the rigors of hurried city life and was charmed by the exquisite bucolic ambiance of the nearby Santa Ynez Valley.

In 1968, Betty found a piece of land that suited her purpose and Buttonwood Farm became a reality. She chose the name Buttonwood (another name for the Sycamore tree) in homage to the number of trees that dotted her new property. Always on the eye for a good usage for the farm, Betty initially thought the property well suited for growing grapes, a belief at the time that wasn’t held by many in the area.

Meanwhile, Betty’s daughter Barry, a medical doctor, had married Bret Davenport, whose career involved personal business management and investment projects. At one point, Bret got together with Betty and his sister-in-law, Seyburn Zorthian, and the trio decided to begin planting vines on an unused mesa on Buttonwood Farm. That was in 1983, and three separate thirteen-acre parcels were put under vine to get the new business started.

One of the curiosities in American cultural life is that for many of the East Coast intellectual publications, California is where the readers are. We traveled regularly to the coast for panels, seminars, and the cultivation of our subscribers and donors, and I often brought our leading lights to Solvang to meet Betty. Victor Navasky was her friend, as was Jonathan Schell, and I brought Christopher Hitchens around in the days when he was associated with the magazine.
But the landscape of our friendship was really the interior world of Buttonwood, a beautiful stretch of Santa Ynez horse country starting on the flat land fronting Alamo Pintado Road and riding to the crest of an adjoining ridge. It seems looking back that the grasses on those hills were always a tawny color, no matter the season. The scrub and live oaks that dot the open fields, and stand in their own shadow at the height of the day, are for me among the most distinctive features of the California coast. There were a number of these trees on Betty’s land. I  think that at first she was raising quarter horses, but one day when we were walking across those hills surveying her land she announced she was going to plant a vineyard. I recall thinking that it would take years to develop a vineyard before it started producing wine, and how  remarkable it was for a 65-year-old woman to declare such faith in the future.
I had a friend in New York publishing who kept a collection of photographs depicting parts of himself in pictures that featured other people he had known. His arm and Norman Mailer walking down a Manhattan street, for example. I always thought it was an amusing premise for a memoir, and it was also in a sense how I thought of myself in relation to Betty. Over the years we would leave the ranch for lunch or supper at one or other of her favorite places in the area, and she would tell me about a battle she was having with this or that local politician or environmental group. I don’t think I ever really got the full story, or if I did, by the time of my next visit I’d have lost the thread or the issue would have been resolved. She’d introduce me to people she knew in shops and restaurants, and although I retained impressions of the local places and personalities that made up her life I would struggle to make coherent sense of the snippets obtained from these encounters.
But once inside the circumscribed world of Buttonwood the memories are etched in vivid Technicolor. Always on arrival I would pull over in front of the building that housed the farm offices, to say hello to whoever was working there and take stock of the changes that had taken  place since my last visit. There would be new horses, or a new herd of goats. The plantings would have changed, with blooming bushes or a new row of fruit trees. For years Betty continued to experiment with different strategies for the ideal use for the lower fields. Sandra and I had been market gardeners in upstate New York and far west Texas, and whenever Betty’s plan for this part of the ranch involved a crop or the production of organic vegetables we would spend a few hours on the elusive economics of the project.
But the change that transformed Buttonwood and dazzled the eye and the senses of the periodic visitor was the introduction of varietal grapes all long the fallow surfaces of the ridge. The vineyard added to its acreage each year, a new section of perfect symmetrical rows following the contours of the hillside. We would drive up from her house and stroll along the access roads or stop for a picnic at the edge of the pond. She was tall and had stayed thin and wore long-sleeved shirts and trousers, and as she walked between rows of meticulously planted and slowly maturing vines at the epicenter of one of the best-regarded wine producing regions of the world, she seemed unfazed that she had realized her dream.
Next to appear was a winery, and inside the vertical racks began to fill up with wooden barrels. Then stacks of white cardboard cases collected against the walls. And one year, impossibly, a new tasting room on the flats below the Buttonwood vineyard was brimming with visitors eager to sample the sauvignon blancs and the syrah roses from one of the celebrated winemakers of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Betty lives in my memory, implacable, curious, firm, mannered, just, Southern, practical, appreciative of gesture; a lover of words, aristocratic, egalitarian, private. Though I had just seen her and knew she was failing, I was grief-stricken by the news of her death, and by the end of such a long and cherished friendship. She occupied an important place in my life for so many years, always connected in my mind with that drive up from L.A., the pass at the top of the ridge overlooking that breathtaking valley — otherworldly for an easterner — the goings on alongside Alamo Pintado, those vine-covered hillsides, and the anticipation of an encounter with the sinewy, nimble, tough-hearted woman at the end of the long journey. I will miss her always.

The 2nd New Los Angeles Folk Festival is a fun filled day of music and entertainment taking place at Zorthian Ranch, a surreal hideaway at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, just fifteen miles from downtown Los Angeles. Guests will follow a map across this 45 acre estate of junkyard treasures to experience live music on natural stages provided by this unusual property. This is a rare opportunity to visit Zorthian Ranch and see almost thirty bands that define what new folk music is all about.
Our Kickstarter goal brings us closer to making the Folk Fest possible. The more we raise to cover costs, the more event proceeds we’ll be able to donate to I Love Mountains, an organization dedicated to protecting mountains against mountaintop removal ( However, there are many obstacles associated with putting on a big show in an apocalyptically exotic setting. The Ranch has seen better days and we’re eager to apply some TLC to help restore some of its historic lustor.
We need your support to accomplish all this. Operating as a do-it-yourself entity has its excitement and its challenges, but the Folk Fest thrives because people want to see it flourish. Thank you for helping us preserve the art forms that bring people together!

About Zorthian Ranch:
Zorthian Ranch is a 45-acre mountainside retreat built by Jirayr Zorthian in 1945. It has horses, llamas, chickens, dogs, goats, and an overgrown yard. Up until Zorthian’s death, the ranch served as a haven of bohemian life and a backdrop for his artistic expression—salvaged wood, bed springs, rusted vehicles, broken concrete, movie set pieces, beer bottles, old props, more than one kitchen sink, and other junk he could recycle into various sculptures and architecture. He fortified rock walls with discarded telephone poles and railroad ties, tires, and bowling balls. He built towers, inlaid bridges, walkways, and built a pool on the side of the mountain. Jirayr hosted legendary parties attended by the famous and freaky, artists, musicians, nobel prize winning scientists, movie stars, playmates, writers, and kindly neighbors brought together for festivities host most describe as a bohemian Socrates wearing long red underwear who had women dressed up as nymphs dance around him for his birthday. A little research supports that his two favorite things in life were pigs and women, and the nymphs fed him grapes.

“As time went by and my forays up the mountain became more frequent, and under the influence of atmosphere and setting, I began to think of Zorthian as the genuine article: an authentic bohemian. I came to recognize that he was one of the few among us who was truly interesting. And slowly I began to understand that his entire life was being conducted as an ongoing work of performance art.” —The Last Bohemian, RIP
by Paul J, Karlstrom, L.A. Weekly
compliments to The New LA Folk Fest:
“The L.A. urban folk scene has slowly grown over the last decade from a cluster of mutual friends to a small community of bands to its own mini-alt-country music organization, The New Los Angeles Folk Festival.” —L.A. Times
“Everyone agreed that this night was special. It was more than just a concert. It felt like an experience. We were transported by the visuals and the music and the environment and the funny delivery of a story by the hostess…All this makes me look forward to anything The New L.A. Folk Fest does.”—L.A. Record

“Whomever organized all this…really had their shit together.”—StompBeast

“The New Los Angeles Folk Festival has been doing a fine job of bringing that wide-open spirit to the city.” —NBC Los Angeles

“The Los Angeles Folk Fest is doing some really cool and unique shows that are definitely worth checking out.”—Argot & Ochre

“LA’s freakiest folks…The New LA Folk Fest”—The Coachella Valley Art Scene
“It’s a beautiful thing for LA. Seems to be washing away a lot of the pretense that gives L.A. a bad name.” —RT N’ The 44’s, interviewed by The Red Alert
“The New LA Folk Fest…has been designed to mimic the effects of leave-in conditioner on your life…The bands selected represent the folky best of what’s happening in L.A. There are many among us drawn to voices reminiscent of ghosts and cartoons, toys and tap dancing and beards and congas.”—co-founder Daiana Feuer interviewed by OC Weekly

JIRAYR ZORTHIAN: I think, perhaps, it might be interesting for me to give you a slight — just a small history of it. You know, I’m from the East originally. Was born in Turkish Armenia. Came to this country when I was 12 to New Haven, Connecticut. Was educated there. Went through Yale school of Fine Arts. I won a fellowship to study there. And I won a fellowship to study in Europe. On my graduation – came back and did many, many murals throughout the country. Most of them in the East Coast. And, I was interrupted by the Second World War. I spent three and a half years in the Army. With my first wife, whom I married just before I got into the Army. She was from New Orleans. She, however, was educated in the East, Sarah Lawrence. And when the war ended, I had done enough long distance murals . . .
PAUL KARLSTROM: What do you mean by that?
JIRAYR ZORTHIAN: For instance, I did 11 murals for the [Tennessee]state capitol in Nashville in this studio in New York. And when they were finished, transported them over there and put them up. And I felt . . . I had never really acclimated myself to the East. And I always felt that if I was gonna be an American artist, I should go West. Go West, young man, go West. And, believe it or not, Betty and I chose . . .
PAUL KARLSTROM: Your wife’s name was Betty?
JIRAYR ZORTHIAN: Betty. That was this wife.
PAUL KARLSTROM: What was were maiden name?

JIRAYR ZORTHIAN: Her maiden name was Betty Williams.
JIRAYR ZORTHIAN: She was from New Orleans from a very affluent family. She had 30 suitors after her. She was an heiress. But she and I started having children in the East and decided that we — first, one of the reasons I — we — got this place was — first, we didn’t trust supermarket food and we were very particular about what went into our children’s stomachs and we decided to have some land where we could grow our vegetables, our own — have our own chickens and slaughter our own animals, even though both of us had never done this before. And we bought 10 acres of land outside of San Antonio, Texas and I felt San Antonio was an excellent place for me to fulfill this idea I had of doing murals — it’s centrally located in the country. Now, for instance, if I wanted to do something for . . . and I loved Mexico, too, that was another reason. The southern part would have been Mexico, I could go to Mexico frequently. If I wanted to do something for Chicago, it was a short trip to Chicago. To New York, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles. However, my — as time went on, it was almost impossible to find a place in San Antonio to live. We lived in the East waiting for a place to even rent.

The mural placed in the post office by the federal government and done by Jirayr, H. Zorthian of New Haven, Conn. is now in place. It graces the west wall of the the public lobby. The scene is blended but readily separates into three panels representing periods of development from the coming of the white trader up to the Revolutionary period.
The left panel is a typical trading post scene in which the white trader is dealing with the Indians. There are a few trade goods but the principal commodity is that sure and effective liquid which was the base of all barter–the rum keg. Through an open window, a glimpse of the valley is given which is cleverly drawn to suggest Mohawk Valley landscape. This is true of the whole mural. Artist Zorthian spent enough time here last year to catch a clear impression of valley scenery. A touch of purple here and there shows that he did not overlook that peculiar color element which creeps in all along the distances here in the valley, growing in volume as the fall frosts appear. In the trading group are four Mohawk Indians, two sober, and two more or less jingled. A squaw is seen seated tipping the bottle with evident relish. His Mohawk Indian is faithfully executed. He did not make the mistake of incorporating Sioux Indians for Mohawks. The trader is well dressed as were the early traders who sought o impress the savages with their importance. Later the trader dressed more and more like the savages, but the first ones were in fact merchants from Albany.
In the center is a young mother and babe. Here again the artist escaped a popular pitfall. He did not dress his characters like New England Puritans. There were German immigrants and the sons and daughters of immigrants and their costumes, language and architecture bore the imprint of the Palatines of the Rhine Valley. A prominent group in the middle foregrounds consists of a land owner a Mohawk chief, a Dominie, a frontiersman and a Mohawk maid. The are discussing matters of policy in a peaceful and amicable manner. Here we have the distinctive difference in matters of Mohawk valley Indian and frontier policy. Our settlers bought their land and lived at peace with the Indians. They came in as settlers and not conquerors. They learned the Indian language and taught and preached to the Indians in their own language. One of the best friends of the whites was King Hendrick who lived at Indian Castle. His likeness was selected for the Indian in the picture. Back of this group the Mohawk Valley spreads out with its church and mill and stone fort in the distance. In the extreme right hand corner is that heart rending scene which so often was enacted in this bloody valley. The return of the young husband and wife to their destroyed home after the invasion of the enemy during the Revolution. Here stands the skeleton fireplace and chimney amid the burned ruins of the home which they had built with hope and happy dreams. A dead horse signifies the end of their hard earned property values. And a real touch of genius was the incorporation in the picture of the grave stones of Henry Klock and Christian Nellis, the earliest known graves of our pioneers.
The features for the various characters were found among the photographs in the St. Johnsville room at the Margaret Reaney Memorial Library. The artists has succeeded very well in creating a type suited to Mohawk Valley stock. On the whole the mural is well executed from a purely mechanical point of view. The artist is a master craftsman. But more than that he has caught the spirit and atmosphere of the Mohawk Valley, for which we are grateful. There is a notable absence of the “spiritual” and allegorical type of mural. The work is literal and adapted to the environment of St. Johnsville. And that is as it should be.
Artist Zorthian has done many murals and is making a name for himself. Some of his work is in the state house in Nashville and in the new Light Building in New Haven. His work was shown in color in a recent issue of Life magazine.

About Royal Rosamond Press

I am an artist, a writer, and a theologian.
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1 Response to Folk Festival at Zorthian Ranch

  1. Reblogged this on rosamondpress and commented:

    Jirayr H. Zorthian, says was influenced by Thomas Hart Benton. Thomas is the cousin of the muralist, Garth Benton who married my late sister, the world famous artist, Christine Rosamond Benton. These four women and myself would live in a commune in San Fancisco, our rent paid by Betty Zorthian, the heiress of the William’s Shave fortune. Seyburn is an artist. I put Mary Ann’s art alongside Benton’s and Zorthians that are political in nature. Mary Ann is the All American Woman who deserves mention by her ex who is exploiting the Hip scene Mary Ann was a pioneer of. She paid her dues. Has Thomas, who has lived his life in fear of meeting me Mr. Hippie? Thomas has to get over it, the death of his good friend, Richard Farina, whose charisma was off the chart. There are so many “What ifs”. Who is going to author Pynchon’s biography. Who is going to author Kesey’s biography?

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