John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." As it turns out, so is death.
|The man behind the woman! Photo by Jana Marcus.|
My life was knocked sideways last month by the sudden loss of my own, beloved Art Boy, James Aschbacher — husband, sweetie, soulmate, yoga partner, companion in so many adventures, and my absolute best friend for 40 years. "And not a night apart!" as he used to boast.
That was true until two weeks ago, when I spent my first three nights alone without him since we first moved in together way back in the Dark Ages of 1978. He spent those three nights in the ICU at Stanford after a stroke felled him early on a Monday morning. By Wednesday, we had to let him go.
It's inconceivable how my life is supposed to work without him. He was (and is) in every part of it. Famously joined at the hip, we went everywhere together — movies, art shows, theater. I co-hosted his Open Studios at our home for 27 years. When he got his first public mural commission (Plaza Lane, downtown), I helped him paint it.
|Comic Book Boy, ca 1977|
When I did a book reading somewhere, or participated on a book panel, or in a film discussion group, he was always in the front row.
I can't tell you how many terrible movies he sat through with me. (Especially since a film critic doesn't have the option of walking out!) But we saw some great ones too, more shared experiences to rack up over our time together.
It all began one day, a few millenia ago, when I walked into the comic book shop, Atlantis Fantasyworld, on lower Paific, with a friend who collected comics.
Little did I know I was about to meet my future.
|Meet the Future: Wedding Day, 1978|
We would spend many Sundays at the flea market, James groveling around on the asphalt pawing through boxes of forgotten books in search of that one item he knew some collector somewhere desperately wanted. Matching up people with their dreams — that's what he loved to do all his life.
He was a man of many diverse passions, one following another in orderly sequence (Libra that he was). As a teenager, he'd performed a magic act at kids' parties. He loved cheesy '50s monster movies and collected vintage posters from his favorites.
|Loony 'toonists (with one of our jokes on the wall), 1991|
Soon after we moved in together, we launched a joint career as single-panel cartoonists (pen name: "Bonet," after the cheap bubbly we were drinking in those days.)
Believe it or not, I drew the cartoons and he wrote the jokes. (Even after he became known as an artist, James claimed he never knew how to draw.)
He amassed a vast library of his favorite horror/sci-fi movies and vintage TV shows on videotape. Whenever anyone was coming to dinner, he first asked what their favorite TV show had been as a kid, and then had that tape cued up and ready for a blast to the past.
And then, on the brink of turning 40, after total immersion in pop culture for so long, he decided to become an artist. No one knows why.
|From Comic Book Guy to Art Boy — 1991|
Ultimately, this would lead to the distinctive technique that he made up: fanciful images (birds, fish, animals, dancing figures) painted in acrylics on spray-painted cardboard, then nailed onto a piece of wood with a hand-carved border of magical symbols.
After the quake of '89, when Atlantis had been relocated into a tent in a parking lot, James decided to pursue art full-time. He and Joe cooked up a 5-year plan for Joe to buy his half of the business; if he couldn't make a decent living after five years, James thought, he could always go get a job. But he didn't have to — he's been selling his artwork ever since.
|If the frame fits: this piece became a mirror!|
He left his mark — literally — on buildings countywide as a muralist, including 10 years painting murals at local elementary schools with 4th and 5th-graders — who were always encouraged to create and paint their own creatures.
OS visitors loved his work, but they especially loved to hear his story about his DIY art career. His path had been so strange, so unexpected, and so self-motivated, he was always encouraging others (artists and normal people) to pursue their dreams, no matter what anyone else told them.
Anybody can be taught to copy some style or other, he often told his mural kids or other artists who sought him out for advice, but only you can create your vision.
|Gail Rich Award, 2005|
Working at home all day led James to new passions. One was cooking, which he embraced with the same glee with which he'd devoted himself to art. He became famous for his pasta, but his pizza was legendary! (He baked it on a screen set on the floor of the oven for seven minutes — a process for which he gave many tutorials among our friends.)
When our Sorrento lemon tree had a bumper crop one, year, he did some online research and taught himself to make limoncello.
It matched his effervescent personality.
On a shopping run, inevitably, the person checking him out with a case (or two) of bubbly would ask, "What's the occasion?" "Just celebrating life," James would say, with a smile.
After he left the store, we started taking daily afternoon walks around the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, to clear our heads of any lingering debris from whatever various projects we'd been working on all morning. More recently, as mobility became an issue for me (due to an unexpected diagnosis of MS), I couldn't walk as far or for as long at a stretch.
|Chair Boy, 2017|
Later, he bought a folding patio chair to stash in the car trunk, in case I needed to rest between benches. That man would cheerfully walk beside me, schlepping the chair like a Sherpa guide until I needed it!
As opposed to me, the reclusive writer, he was the most social man in the universe. He planned all our dinner parties, arranged dates, did all the shopping AND all the cooking! All I had to do was make dessert (my favorite part!) and show up. He ran errands and even fielded robocalls in the mornings when I was writing.
He was so tickled when I finally got a book contract after so many years of toil. The contract was for Young Adult (YA) fiction, and he embraced the book biz with the same enthusiasm he devoted to his other passions — doing research and urging me along. He even started reading YA!
|60s-Themed Hearts for the Arts event|
When we were planning a Will and Trust a couple of years ago, the subject or organ donations came up. James laughed. "Nobody wants my liver!"
The Master of Malapropism, James was also famous for the odd combinations of words and ideas — often seemingly unrelated to each other — that would pop out of his mouth unexpectedly. Once when we were discussing travel plans (he was a notorious homebody), I pointed out that some people actually liked to travel. "Well, some people eat fur for breakfast!" he sputtered. That stopped the conversation cold. As soon as we both realized what he'd said, we laughed until we cried.
|Many Faces of Art Boy: birthday altar, 2011|
There will be a huge hole in the heart of the Santa Cruz arts community without him, and an even more enormous hole in my heart. I am lucky to have had 40 wonderful years with him. Please remember him as he was — cracking jokes, making fabulous art (and pizza!), and toasting Life with Champagne! Every day should be a celebration.
It certainly was for James.
Right now, it seems like people need permission to start feeling more happy that they had him in their lives than sorrow that he's gone. Permission granted — from both of us.
I know James would not want to make everybody sad and miserable — he'd be the first one out there making jokes and popping corks — so I am adopting his upbeat spirit and positive outlook as I plunge ahead into the next chapter.
|Our last photo together: at the Gailies, 2018|
The final season of Game of Thrones.
The demise of the Trump administration.
The complete first draft of my next novel he was so eager to beta-read.
Our 40th wedding anniversary (although we got to celebrate 40 full years together!)
Things I will miss:
Everything about him
I love you, Art Boy!