.Why I Married a Muralist

Editor’s Note: Local artist James Aschbacher’s life will be celebrated at the Rio this week. Now, his longtime wife and constant companion—who also happens to be GT’s film critic—shares her memories of what made him great

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” As it turns out, so is death.

My life was knocked sideways earlier this year by the sudden loss of my own beloved Art Boy, James Aschbacher—husband, sweetie, soulmate, yoga partner, companion for 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 late in April of this year, 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.

secure document shredding

When I was invited to co-host the film review program “Talking Movies” on local TV with former Sentinel film critic Rick Chatenever, 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 in a book panel or 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 millennia ago when I walked into Atlantis Fantasyworld on Pacific with a friend who collected comics. Little did I know I was about to meet my future.

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.

COMIC RELIEF Artist James Aschbacher (left) with Joe Ferrara, co-owner of former downtown Santa Cruz book and comic shop Atlantis Fantasyworld in 1976.
COMIC RELIEF Artist James Aschbacher (left) with Joe Ferrara, co-owner of former downtown Santa Cruz book and comic shop Atlantis Fantasyworld in 1976.

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. 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. He’d never taken a single art class in his life, but was suddenly in the grip of a very demanding muse. Because 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 art board, 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 five-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 was selling his artwork from then on.

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 fourth- and fifth-graders, who were always encouraged to create and paint their own creatures.

Open Studios visitors loved his work, but they especially loved to hear 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.

FRAMED!A self-taught artist who didn’t pick up a brush until his 30s, Aschbacher’s work nonetheless made a huge mark on the Santa Cruz community. PHOTO: LISA JENSEN
FRAMED!A self-taught artist who didn’t pick up a brush until his 30s, Aschbacher’s work nonetheless made a huge mark on the Santa Cruz community. PHOTO: LISA JENSEN

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 our 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 for seven minutes on a screen set on the floor of the oven, 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 (Moët 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 someday 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, the person checking him out with a case or two of bubbly would inevitably ask, “What’s the occasion?” James would smile and say, “Just celebrating life.”

After he left Atlantis Fantasyworld, 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 each 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.

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 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 of 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 while I wrote in the mornings.

James 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.

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. When we got our first phone answering machine, it was a 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.”

INSEPARABLE PAIR Jensen and Aschbacher in 2018. This was the last picture taken of them together.
INSEPARABLE PAIR Jensen and Aschbacher in 2018. This was the last picture taken of them together.

When we were planning a will and trust a couple of years ago, the subject of 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.

That’s the kind of intimacy I’m going to miss the most. 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.

Now that the initial shock has worn off, 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 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.

Things he will miss:

[bullet] the final season of Game of Thrones;

[bullet] the demise of the Trump administration;

[bullet] the complete first draft of my next novel he was so eager to beta-read;

[bullet] our 40th wedding anniversary (although we did get to celebrate 40 years of living together).

Things I will miss:

[bullet] Everything about him.

I love you, Art Boy!

A Tribute to James

A tribute to James Aschbacher’s life, “Celebrating James,” will be held at the Rio Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 25. Doors open at 6 p.m. There will be speakers, a slide show and general conviviality. Please bring stories and memories to share.


  1. Thank U for your moving and heartwarming tribute! However, I was saddened to hear you were recently diagnosed with MS. My father had it for many years. Now there are a lot of healthy options that didn’t exist when he was diagnosed. Do you know about Dr. Terry Wahls?Please Google her! You will find her many free resources funded research and books. She has MS herself and her story is inspiring, from wheelchair bound to again walking and bike riding.

  2. I have such found memories of Jim and Joe at Atlantis! I would run into both of you walking on the cliff’s all the time. You both would always stop and talk to me. You were so sweet. Talking about Jim becoming an artist, etc. Then years later WOW look at the that! ( Mural downtown) He did it! Even thou its been years….both of you have always felt like family to me. RIP Jim <3


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

music in the park san jose
Good Times E-edition Good Times E-edition