Monday, May 7, 2018


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 was invited to co-host the film review program, "Talking Movies," with former Sentinel film critic Rick Chatenever, on local TV, James drove me up to the taping in Scotts Valley every other week, and hung around to heckle — er, I mean, cheer us on from the sidelines.

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
A transplant from the Midwest, James had opened the store a year earlier with his partner, Joe Ferrara. By that time, James had already established a mail-order business with book collectors from all over the country in search of vintage sci-fi paperbacks (the more lurid the cover, the better).

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
He'd never taken a single art class in his life, but was suddenly in the grip of a very demanding muse. Because (as he always said), he didn't know how to draw or even hold a paintbrush, he started out wielding cans of spray paint and cutting out cardboard stencils to shape the image.

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!
James became a popular stop on the Open Studios Art Tour, and an inspiration and mentor within the thriving Santa Cruz arts community. For several years he was also Chairman of the Open Studios Committee for the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County.

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
Unlike the popular image of the flaky artist, James had a strong business sense and a practical streak. Having worked with his father, a general contractor, he also knew how to do stuff. Among friends and colleagues, if you needed a shower door set in, or bookshelves built, James was your go-to guy.

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.

But his drug of choice was always Champagne, either the authentic French kind (Moet was a favorite), or one of the crisp Spanish cavas we'd discovered over the last few years. He'd had some youthful fantasy about some day being successful enough to drink Champagne every night, but in truth, he just loved the sparkle.

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
His solution was to start driving us down to park in the upper harbor, where I could go from bench to bench whenever I needed a time-out. Meanwhile, he would walk from the car all the way down to Aldo's and all the way back to get in as much of his regular walk as possible, back and forth, like a duck in a shooting gallery.

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
In addition to his other talents, he was a hell of a lot of fun to be around, with an upbeat sense of humor, and the twinkle in his eye. We got our first phone answering machine one February when the Winter Olympics were on TV. James recorded the message, "Lisa and I are waxing our luge and can't come to the phone right now."

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
That's the kind of intimacy I'm going to miss, more than any other kind. The kind that can only be brewed from 40 years of shared jokes that nobody else gets, and the helpless laughter that comes with them.

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
Things he will miss:
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!


  1. What a lively and lovely tribute! Yes, I'm ready to have some champagne tonight and be glad to have had such a wonderful friend. Wishing you strength and inspiration and happiness and hope, Lisa. love, Boo

  2. Thanks, Boo! Pop those corks; that's what James would want you to do!

  3. Beautiful, Lisa...Like both you and James have always been. Toasting in his honor and to your future...with much love and happy thoughts. xoxo

    1. Thanks, Jana! Things aren't going to be nearly as much fun around here without him! Love you guys.

  4. Beautifully written. You will find your way,Lisa. And you have all of us to pick you up if you fall down. Cheers to you and Art boy.

  5. Thanks for writing this Lisa, as I think I told you when I saw you both just at the end of February, I have the 3' x 3' , its huge, painting James did very similar to the surfer one that was made into a mirror that you just posted in this article, I think of him every day I'm at work and that every day, hahha, but this is not work for me and everyone here at SPIN is here cause they want to make a difference, and James certainly made a difference to us, in donating every year to our yearly event. I also want to let you know my best freind has MS and if you ever want ot talk to anohter middle aged woman about what her journey ahs been like, she is great! She and I go to SPIN ( stationary bikes) class every Tuesday and Thursdays, and it has really helped her MS, no balancing required, just good cardio and you go as slow or as fast as you can and for as long or short as you can, lots of retired people in this class,its pretty funny that the SPIN lady goes to SPIN class, you cant make this stuff up! Call me or e-mail anytime and we can talk more. Love Cece

  6. Thanks, Cece! My MS — diagnosed suddenly after age 60 — is the reason we stated doing yoga together!

  7. I love that art took hold of Jim at 40. I love that he celebrated each day with champagne. I love that his big, exuberant vision covers walls all over town. I hate that he didn’t have decades more to hug and laugh and paint. Damn.

  8. Thanks, Laurie! I agree with every word you said. Double-damn!

  9. Jean BrocklebankMay 11, 2018 at 10:02 AM

    Michael and I enjoyed ... and were blessed by ... your togetherness and joy. Best of all, I smile as I write this, for that is what James was: a delightful Life Smile. A good lesson for all of us ... to live our lives happily and in love with our best friends.

  10. Thanks, Jean! Love your life and the person you share it with — that's what James' message was to the world!