Poet, teacher, and arts commissioner Trish Black Melehan in front of a downtown mural.
Poet, teacher, and arts commissioner Trish Black Melehan stands in front of a downtown mural by the late James Aschbacher, with whom she collaborated on a new book of poetry.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

James in verse: Poet Melehan honors a late, great Santa Cruz artist in her new book of poetry

James Carl Aschbacher did two things to ensure that his legacy as an artist would last in Santa Cruz for generations.

First, he developed a distinctive style of art, using his own iconography and color palette in a way in which his unique vision could be identified instantly, whether or not you knew the first thing about art. Then, he put his art out in the world (or at least into Santa Cruz County) everywhere in the public sphere available to him. That includes two huge murals in downtown Santa Cruz.

Wallace

Now, three-plus years after his death, Aschbacher has surfaced in another medium, a new book.

The book is a long-gestating collaboration between Aschbacher — who died of a stroke at the age of 66 in 2018 — and local poet and teacher Trish Black Melehan. It’s called “Journey Fantastique,” and it’s a collection of poems inspired by (and featuring plenty of) Aschbacher’s art.

The collaboration came about because Melehan made Aschbacher’s art — and not her own — the centerpiece of the book. Aschbacher was never much interested in illustrating someone else’s book, said his widow and mural painting partner, Lisa Jensen.

“James was often asked by people coming to his Open Studios about illustrating children’s book,” said Jensen. “But he didn’t want to illustrate someone else’s story. His paintings were their own thing. They had their own narrative.”

But Melehan proposed that she write poetry inspired by his paintings, instead of the other way around. “And so I picked a painting, and I wrote a poem about it,” she said. “I didn’t think I could do it. I had never written a poem based on a landscape or (some other artwork). But I did. So, I have illustrated his paintings, basically.”

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The 12-inch square book features reproductions of 18 Aschbacher’s originals on the left-hand page, with Melehan’s poems on the right side (with a few larger horizontal works taking both sides of the spread). Aschbacher’s familiar themes and motifs are apparent throughout the full-color book, including the thick frames illustrated by symbols and glyphs, fantastical animals, and whimsical human figures often perched with arms and legs spread, like a five-pointed star.

The poems are often in the form of conversations, or dialogues. Like Aschbacher’s art itself, the poetry is not designed for children per se, but contains an unmistakable childlike charm.

The cover of the book of poetry by Trish Black Melehan.
(Wallace Baine / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Melehan’s idea goes back more than 15 years, to when she first encountered Aschbacher’s distinctive artwork. She first met the artist at a stop on the Open Studios tour, but she had already become familiar with his work.

“When I saw his cards around the art museum and other places, I thought he was probably 25,” she said. “I thought he was this young guy with this great spirit. He’s whimsical and he’s got such a unique style.”

Aschbacher was, in fact, about twice the age that Melehan had assumed. But in another way, she was right about him. Aschbacher had lived another life as the co-proprietor of Santa Cruz’s beloved comic-book emporium Atlantis Fantasyworld. But, at the age of 40, he sold out to his partner Joe Ferrara and embarked on a journey to become a visual artist with no background or training in art. So though he was over 50 by the time Melehan met him, Aschbacher was still a newbie at art, with the freshness and enthusiasm of the young artist.

In time, Melehan became a regular patron of Aschbacher’s art and many of the paintings featured in “Journey Fantastique” are paintings that she owns. But though she had completed more than a half of the poems in the book early on, the years passed without the project being finished. Melehan became a grandmother, directed several plays, and became an arts commissioner for the city of Scotts Valley. In fact, before it was a book, the collaboration between the artist and the poet was a performance piece that Melehan would present at schools.

After Aschbacher’s death, Melehan again turned to the book project and worked hard to make sure that the artist’s work was well represented in print.

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“James’s paintings have a texture to them,” she said. “They’re on wood and they have real depth. But I was very happy with the quality of how they came out.”

Jensen, who wrote the book’s foreword, said that her late husband would be pleased with the finished product. Other than a book jacket and a CD cover, Aschbacher’s work has never been published in print.

“I think his work should be collected in a book,” she said. “I hope to collect them all in a book, but I haven’t done it yet. Trish beat me to it.”

“Journey Fantastique” is now on sale at Bookshop Santa Cruz and Zinnia’s boutique in Scotts Valley.