As he retires from painting his striking Santa Cruz murals, James Aschbacher is re-inventing his art
Though he’s best known now as Santa Cruz’s most popular muralist, James Aschbacher once wrote a column for Magic Magazine.
“I had a little stage show when I was 16,” he reveals. “My dad and I did magic acts—sawing the lady in half, that kind of thing. Even some Houdini tricks.”
As he readies himself for another Open Studios season, transformation is still part of Aschbacher’s visual magic.
Over the past 15 years, his murals—some painted with his wife, GT film critic Lisa Jensen, some with entire classes of fifth-graders from around the county—have sprung up everywhere, 18 in all. Working with private clients and city partners, Aschbacher has created wall-sized fantasies populated by his whimsical flying fish, twirling birds and cats, and fanciful folk with wild hair. Retiring this year from the mural game, citing back trouble, Aschbacher now devotes himself full time to painstakingly crafted, shaped, incised and painted artworks.
“I learned on the job,” he says with a grin from an astonishingly neat work table at the studio end of his mid-county home. A Chicago native, Aschbacher came west in 1975 with a girlfriend who was attending UCSC. “I saw the palm trees and I loved it immediately.”
Supporting himself with a mail-order business in illustrated and vintage children’s books, the future painter began to expand his valuable collection of comics. “I went to flea markets,” he recalls. “And that’s where I met Joe Ferrara. We were both go-getters, and so in 1978 we opened Atlantis Fantasy World on Pacific Avenue.”
Aschbacher recalls the scene as “fun, weird, wild times. We handled some Star Trek stuff, and when Star Wars opened six months later, sci-fi came out of the closet. We were the first with TSR role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.”
After the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, Aschbacher retired from the comics scene and started experimenting with art. “I had all these ideas, but no skill,” he says with a chuckle. “I never took an art class. I had to start at the very beginning.”
Having grown up working in construction with his dad, Aschbacher was no stranger to woodshops. With cans of spray paint and hand-cut stencils, he began feeling his way into a style. “I did 200 paintings that way, spray paint through stencils on illustration board. I was obsessed,” he admits. “I installed lights in the back yard so I could work late into the night.”
The next breakthrough came when he started painting fanciful figures onto the stencils, each coated with hundreds of coats of sprayed color. “Lisa’s mom gave me paint brushes one Christmas, so I started carving in wood, then brushing paint into the carvings.” His familiar style was born. First a plywood base, then the painted board nailed onto the wood, and finally a border of encised and painted hieroglyphs. “Paul Klee’s quirky drawing gave me confidence that I didn’t have to have an academic style, I didn’t need perspective.”
Aschbacher entered his first Open Studios in 1995. “I’ve been doing it for 25 years,” he notes. And it has been very very good to him.
The size of each painting was originally determined by the sizes of the recycled scrap board. Only later did he make large foundations for the highly popular pieces, available at the annual Church Street Art Fair, at Bargetto, on Pasta Mike sauces, etc.
“Then I started getting galleries,” he says, including Many Hands in Santa Cruz and two in Chicago. “Those were big for me, since my family was from that area.”
As the years went by, Aschbacher’s palette got brighter. “I wasn’t brave enough at first.” Color is now a central feature of his style, along with the hieroglyphs. “Certain symbols—the circle, the cross, the star, the wave—are universal. And I like to alternate lines and solids. I’m a Libra, so I want balance.”
A devoted pizza and pasta chef, Aschbacher says he never tires of creating in his highly recognizable style. “It might bore other people, but not me, because I always love seeing how it will look.”
Do his smiling creatures reflect his own persona? “Absolutely. My mission is to make people smile.”
LOCAL COLOR Now in his 25th year participating in Open Studios, James Aschbacher has had a great deal of success locally with his vibrant signature style. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER