Although only five-feet-two-inches tall, artist Col. Jirayr H. Zorthian ART ’36 had a reputation that far exceeded his diminutive stature.
As memorable for his parties with “naked nymphs” and his house built from garbage as he was for his celebrated paintings and murals, Zorthian died on Jan. 6 at the age of 92 from congestive heart failure at his ranch in Altadena, Calif.
Zorthian and his family were originally from Turkey but lived in Italy for two years before settling in New Haven in 1922 when the artist was 11. Zorthian was considered a talented artist even in his youth and went on to receive a master’s degree from the Yale School of Fine Arts.
The artist was famous for his mural paintings throughout the Great Depression. Painting a mural at the Tennessee governor’s mansion in Nashville earned him the title of Colonel — a title he used for the rest of his professional life.
One of the most famous of these murals is called “The Phantasmagoria of Military Intelligence Training,” and is now considered a contemporary masterpiece by art critics.
Jirayr Zorthian’s artwork itself generally used as its subject either nude women or the female genitalia. This work was not pornographic in nature, but a tribute to women, his wife said.
“Women were his salvation; he believed that women gave life,” Dabney Zorthian said.
The horror of living through the Armenian Genocide in Turkey as a child, the deaths of his parents and, later, the deaths of two of his young children — one of which he was responsible for — also came out in his art, his wife said.
“There was always something in there [in his art] about man’s inhumanity to man, but he was not blaming it on anyone — it was just there,” she said.
Zorthian also credited his father, who commented on the amount of waste the United States produces, with inspiring him to recycle long before it became popular, Dabney Zorthian said. Following his divorce from his first wife, Betsy Williams, the heiress to a shaving cream fortune, he became one of the first men ever to get alimony in California and kept their nine acre ranch in Altadena. Zorthian would live on the ranch for the next 45 years, recycling the refuse of his neighbors by building an eccentric compound.
Buildings on the property include walls made of baby booties and railroad ties and what Zorthian called his “falling down house,” a building made with no right angles.
Zorthian was known for his appreciation of life.
“The purpose of life is living,” he is quoted as saying on his Web site.
At the age of 82, Zorthian began throwing parties with “naked nymphs” to celebrate his birthday and the beginning of springtime. It became a tradition that each year the number of his “naked nymphs,” who were little more than nudists adorned with flowers, was increased by one.
“He was a living breathing force of nature and so alive,” Dabney Zorthian said. “He lived up to that every second of his life until the last.”
Artist Douglas Tharalson called Zorthian an “unquestionable source of inspiration” in his own autobiography.
“His unstoppable passion for building, painting, sculpture and living life to its fullest through art and creative activity taught me that a creative lifestyle is possible,” Tharalson said on his Web page.
Jirayr Zorthian is survived by his wife, five children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.