Having been raised so sheltered and caged, rarely socialized with animals or humans, it's hard for me to imagine growing up with any real sense of community. Even with my mother home all the time, even after sharing a bedroom with my sister for 17 years, I always felt so isolated. My classmates stopped inviting me to parties and school dances because I always had to say no, lest I aggravate my mother's attachment disorder, and get in trouble just for asking.
Even as an adult, I always kind of feel left out. These days, people often don't invite me because they presume I'm too busy or have other plans, or that somebody else must've invited me. But that's not always true.
And of course I don't like going where I'm not invited. So I don't just show up to a birthday celebration or holiday dinner, even if I know it's happening. I often wait for invitations that never come.
So it meant a lot to me when Alan Zorthian said he'd love to meet me and show me his ranch. I jumped at his invitation, and called him immediately to arrange. I knew Alan by reputation but not personally, though I'd seen (and photographed) his livestock at this year's Blessing of the Animals. I'd heard stories of the ever-evolving art installation that was his home, and of his father's notorious parties that once drew artists, scientists, jazz musicians, and other illuminati. But I had no idea what I was in for.
As instructed, I went to the end of the road until I couldn't go anymore, and upon seeing the sign for Zorthian Ranch, kept going.
The paved road narrows and winds around to an old wooden bridge which is in "dangerous condition"...
...and "subject to fail at any time," something you're acutely aware of as you cross it whether on foot or in a car.
The single-lane road is more like a hiking trail, or a fire road at best, but lots of vehicles use it to come in and out of the ranch every day.
Because even though it's private property, located on a relatively remote parcel of Angeles National Forest, it's actually bustling with activity from staff, residents, visitors, farmers, artists, artisans and more.
The main house, originally built by Alan's father Jirayr Zorthian (by all intents the Zorthian) sometime after moving in in the late 1940s, is technically Alan's home now...
...but he rents it out to various other artists who come up to the ranch and get creative.
Zorthian Ranch has always been somewhat of a collective effort, with many of the objects – otherwise destined for the junkyard – donated by friends and neighbors to be incorporated into the structures of the property architecturally...
...or to create three dimensional art pieces of their own, taking assemblage art to the extreme.
Each grouping is its own sculpture, and every object is strategically placed in a diorama of organized chaos. It's fascinating to watch Alan walk over, pick something up out of the pile, and say, "That doesn't belong here."
The animals that were on parade a few weeks ago live at the ranch, too, including Rama the llama...
...whose free-range life allows him to poke around all the mysterious corners, and peer out at new faces who have come to visit.
As long as the Zorthians have been working on the Ranch – Jirayr until his death in 2004 at the age of 92, and now taken over by Alan, a professional architect – it's still unfinished.
After all, it's a living organism.
If new building codes require a fence at the end of a platform, a fence is built...
...in the form of an art wall embedded with found objects like glass insulators.
Zorthian Ranch has become a popular location for photo and film shoots, and sometimes the crews leave something behind – like a piano that they set on fire. Now, the charred relic will find its proper resting place at the ranch, somewhere.
The most striking thing about the architecture of Zorthian Ranch is the lack of enclosed spaces. What has been built are platforms and patios and ramps and walls and bridges and stairs, creating a labyrinth with some nooks and crannies, but lots of open air for the assemblage of people as well as art.
There's even a pool...
...equipped with a slide.
Nothing goes to waste, and everything has a home here, whether it's a tower of tire rims...
...or any variety of scrap metal, glass, and (broken) ceramics.
Unlike Alan, his father Jirayr was not a trained or licensed architect, so some of what he built, though artistic, may not exactly be safe or practical. But Alan is working on that.
This place can be such a haven, full of quietude and solitude...
...until a truck roars up the hill, and someone fires up the blacksmith shop.
But there is peace here, and a release from expectation and entitlement. No one judges you at Z Ranch; and they know what it's like to be judged by the outside world.
Can you imagine trying to explain your upbringing at a place like this to the Pasadena folks down below?
But it doesn't matter if other people don't understand. You either get this life or you don't.
I'm drawn to this life in the same way I've been drawn to the California desert, especially Joshua Tree. I get it.
It's where life and death peacefully coexist.
It's a graveyard, where discarded cars are reincarnated as art.
Everything has a purpose. Everything belongs.
And you can sleep inside a tiny trailer or camp outdoors, because you have everything you need.
Life is messy. Why fight it?
Why not make a beautiful mess?
Why not use what you've got?
I immediately felt like a kindred spirit of the community of Zorthian Ranch – not just of the family members themselves, but of the people they attract.
There's a comfortable commune with birds and animals.
They're allowed to roam...
...but they always come home, because home is a nice place to be.
As as the sun begins to set, and the rest of the valley below begins to darken...
...the ranch transforms.
The metal and glass somehow retain their luminosity.
The bees swirl about their hives and their honey. And the celebrations begin.
Last year, 10 years after Jirayr's death, Alan revived the Zorthian tradition of "Primavera" parties, a bacchanalian affair that begins with a pig roast...
...and then moves to the stage with some nude nymphs and naughty satyrs dancing in the shadows.
Amidst the drinks and the drugs and the bodies and the flowers, you can feel the spirit of Jirayr – and his alter-ego, Zorbacchus – an erotic artist who surrounded himself with dancing nudes feeding him grapes off the vine. He attributed his longevity to this ritual. It seems appropriate to carry on the tradition even after he's passed.
I'm not much of a bohemian or hippie, and I'm definitely not a nudist, but I'm a bit of a pantheist and enjoy pagan rituals and occasional debauchery. I struggle with identifying myself publicly as an artist, but I know that I am one. I think Alan must know that too, or he wouldn't have invited me.
My visit felt like some kind of pilgrimage, perhaps a rite of passage. To what? I don't know yet. I'm still lost. I'm still looking for a home. I'm still looking to belong somewhere, to something and someone.
The Island of Misfit Toy
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