Ralph Tarzian was a sculptor. He died on June 12, 2019, peacefully, at the age of 95. His family revered him as a kind and loving war hero, artist, and scholar. He and his wife, Nancy, who died in 2011, leave behind three children, six grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren. A resident of Laguna Beach since 1966, he was the patriarch of a family who relied on him as not only their moral compass, but as a source of artistic inspiration and unconditional love. He generously molded them, as well as countless students and colleagues, into the people they are today.
Ralph was born in 1923 in Fresno, California, to Leo and Sona (Boyajian) Tarzian. His younger brother, Bob, was born shortly thereafter, once the family had moved to Long Beach. His parents were both the children of Armenian immigrants; Ralph was a proud child of the Armenian diaspora. He was prone to slip into his grandparents’ native tongue with a grin and a twinkle in his eye that embodied William Saroyan’s observation: “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”
Ralph was born an artist, painting, drawing, and sculpting since before he could remember. Some of his earliest memories were of building sculptures from wood and paper. The walls and shelves of his Laguna Canyon studio, where he worked nearly every day until 2011, were adorned with his work spanning 90 years.
Ralph was industrious as a child and sold chickens and eggs, delivered papers, and worked in the post office, generally to fund his motorcycle or hotrod habit. He attended Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, where he was a middling student but accomplished what would be the most important feat of his life: meeting Nancy.
As she recalled, besides art, Ralph’s life revolved around petroleum: getting it and using it. Internal combustion engines almost killed him at least twice: once in a motorcycle accident that delayed his high school graduation until February of 1942, and the second time on the other side of the globe, during WWII. Indeed most of Ralph’s teen years seem to have involved near-death road trips, automobile-induced peril, and light larceny aimed at securing his next tank of gas.
Ralph was inducted into the Army in January 1943 and by the end of the year he was serving as a corporal in the Air Corps glider division in New Guinea. In 1944, while building a landing strip, he was caught between two pieces of machinery and nearly “ground up,” as he later recalled. His war was over, and he spent the next year in hospitals, first in Australia, then in California, where he finally got out of a body cast. He finished up his service in Texas, where he taught skeet during the day and ran liquor at night. Upon his return to Long Beach, he and Nancy rekindled their romance and were married in 1947.
Always industrious, Ralph soon had three children to feed: Patrick, Pamela, and Stephen. Ralph was studying art and working at the post office. The young family used $5,000 that Ralph had saved from bootlegging in Texas to buy a cottage in Paramount, to which Ralph added rooms as the family grew. The family grew and it grew, and Ralph’s career grew along with it. He became an “artist’s artist” in Orange County, treasuring and seeking out the work of his colleagues, yet always staying humble as they too sought out and treasured his increasingly masterful work in bronze and stone. In 1966, Ralph and Nancy moved to Laguna Beach and Ralph established the sculpture department at Orange Coast College, where he was a professor of fine arts until he retired from teaching in 1984.
As Ralph grew as an artist, as a carver of marble, travertine, and alabaster, and as a master of lost-wax bronze works that increasingly became sought after among collectors, Ralph and Nancy made annual pilgrimages to Pietrasanta, Italy, to work with Italian stone carvers who would become lifelong friends. He would return with more stone for his work. Ralph saw the rock from this area, first popularized by Michelangelo, as fundamental to his medium. He and Nancy travelled the world and their adventures informed his approach to sculpture. These trips and his Italian colleagues inspired Ralph and expanded his approach to sculpture. He increasingly began to show work in galleries throughout the Southland and beyond. He was a regular exhibitor at the Festival of the Arts, and served on the boards of the Laguna Art Museum and Long Beach Art Association, garnering awards for his work, public installations, and more recently, lifetime achievement recognition, including the 2010 Laguna Beach Art Alliance Art Star Lifetime Achievement award.
After retiring from teaching in 1984, Ralph began working solely out of his Laguna Canyon studio. He worked almost every day and loved the community of artists who sought him out as a mentor. His studio was a hub for grandchildren, artisans, and old friends. And if he wasn’t poring over a piece of rock, trying to unwrap the hidden figure within, or building wax figures for his next bronze, he was operating some type of heavy equipment. The board and batten walls shook when he ran his air-hammer. At quitting time, the Coors from his studio refrigerator just tasted colder, better. Ralph worked from his studio until 2011, when Nancy died. With the loss of Nancy, and a broken heart, Ralph retired from public life at 88. He still reveled in friends, the art community, and his great-grandchildren. But without Nancy, after their marriage of 65 years, Ralph had lost part of himself.
Ralph’s family, colleagues, and friends are better for having been formed by the kind and giving leader of their clan. He lives on wherever two of them meet and remember his mischievous grin, his generous spirit, and his taste for hard work and adventure. He and Nancy are on the long viaggio together; may it never end.
Ralph was an ardent supporter of fellow artists. Family and friends will be making contributions in his honor to charities that support the arts, including the Artists Fund at the Festival of Arts, a nonprofit organization assisting artists who have suffered an unforeseen hardship: www.theartistsfund-foa.org.