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Very Close Encounters

Jeff and Lisa Ayers
Robert Scheer

Burnin' Desires: One-of-a-kind neighbors Jeff and Lisa Ayers bask in the warmth of their fireplace and--oh, yeah--their homemade volcano.

In the sleepy hills of Soquel, one couple has dreamed up a real alien landscape of art and fantasy

By Kelly Luker

TRYING TO FIGURE OUT what constitutes weird in Santa Cruz is like trying to decide what passes for chilly in Antarctica. It's a neck-and-neck race with most of this population, each barely edging the other out to wear the victory wreath of Truly Strange. Then again, there are my neighbors Jeff and Lisa Ayers, a nice young couple who, when it comes to different, leave the rest of the pack in the dust.

It's difficult trying to pinpoint when the Ayerses first came to my attention. It might have been at my brother and sister-in-law's wedding reception, when a dozen gi-suited little boys and girls broke into the festivities to demonstrate a series of tightly choreographed kung fu moves. Just a little wedding gift from the Ayerses, who were teaching the children martial arts.

Or, maybe it was during my morning walks as I observed giant turrets, castle walls and leering warriors starting to take shape in the Ayers' back yard, looming over the otherwise quiet countryside. But, when my brother Jim asked offhandedly one day, "Wanna go see Jeff and Lisa's volcano?" I realized the time had come for a face-to-face.

Who these folks are is no easier to decode than what they actually do. A life-sized papier-mâché knight from Alice in Wonderland greets us with a welcome sign as we roll through the front gate. A series of abandoned fishing boats, rowboats, canoes and dilapidated trawlers line the right of the driveway. Lisa appears in a '40s-style swimsuit, pumps, wide hat and Hollywood sunglasses--Greta Garbo come to life. A perfectly chilled martini in her hand, she gestures us on a guided tour through Soquel's version of the Looking Glass. There is a low-slung building to the left, painted varying shades of blue, pink, lavender and mauve. That, she explains, will be the artists' colony. Already, a woodworker, glass blower and candle maker have set up shop in there.

Both Jeff and Lisa were born into the art world. Jeff's father was what Lisa describes as Palo Alto's "resident artist," taking it upon himself to decorate University Avenue for the holidays. Upon his retirement, the couple inherited a 5,000-square- foot warehouse full of tsotchkes, like the Alice in Wonderland doorman, which dot the property. Lisa got a degree from UCSC in "aesthetic studies"--a major she's pretty sure is defunct now. They have nurtured their passion for martial arts and both hold black belts, she says, in several different disciplines.

The Big Stage

BESIDES THE MARTIAL arts school, the Ayers have had their thumb in a lot of different pies over the years. There was the day-care center, the various tenant rentals and now, providing work space to artists. Lisa speaks animatedly, breathlessly pogoing from one idea to the next. The latest plan, she's decided, is to create a summer camp for kids. They can ride horses, discover nature, practice martial arts and learn glass blowing.

Uh, learn glass blowing? No matter--the idea is the little rascals would get a well-rounded experience. Lisa says that children have been central to the Ayers' existence since Jeff owned a surf shop in Aptos almost 20 years ago. "He was like a 'Father Flanagan' to all the Rio rats," Lisa recalls.

We walk into another building that features two large workout rooms--one filled with exercise equipment, the other open floor space. This is where the youngsters practice their katas and karate moves. Twice a week Lisa teaches an aerobics class she calls "defense-ercise," combining cardiovascular workout with martial arts. Outside the window, a few Tennessee Walkers are grazing around the edges of an elevated, regulation-size, full-contact boxing ring. In yet another little side business, the Ayerses contract with local hotels and motels to provide horseback riding for their guests.

And the boxing ring? Don't ask.

We wander through the building and out the final door, which empties onto a giant raised stage. It is only after stepping out a few feet and looking behind that we can grasp the full enormity of this, this creation. Brightly painted plywood mountains rise up close to 40 feet, interspersed with yet more abandoned boats suspended in mid-air between the aforementioned turrets. A bright light steadily blinks from the point of one turret, illuminating castle walls done in bas-relief.

The first of two questions come to mind: What? "We wanted to create a martial arts show that would teach kids about the Mongolian storming of Europe," Lisa explains matter-of-factly. "You know, Genghis Khan versus the Royal Crusaders." Of course.

And to the second question--Why?--she sniffs, "We believe it's time to put the 'art' back in martial arts." To that end, the couple has thrown martial arts demonstrations in this rural neck of the county that have drawn more than 2,000 people. Those little wing-dings, along with the oversized Mongolian motif, have reportedly made for some friction with her closest neighbors.

Rumors have flown about the Ayerses since they began constructing their Rube Goldberg-esque existence in this location more than 11 years ago. The neighborhood battle raged relentlessly for years until both parties, spent and exhausted, finally stopped calling the Planning Department on each other. Theory was, though, that the mammoth size and garish design of the Mongolian backdrop grew in direct proportion to neighbor complaints.

Then there's the story of the tenant who called Jeff, saying he was on his way over to pay the rent. "Oooh, let me get my landlord outfit on first," he reportedly told the startled renter, then answered the door in full S&M regalia.

The 911 Volcano

WE HAVE NOW moved beyond the bloody history of the Caucasus mountains and over to what brought me here--the infamous volcano. Built to accompany one luau-themed martial arts demo/party, the miniature Mt. Vesuvius gained legendary status one night when flames shot more than 50 feet into the air. Terrified neighbors dialed 911, bringing the Central Fire District trucks screaming into the fray.

As volcanoes go, it is a lovely rendition. The slopes, carefully landscaped with tropical plants, surround a cavernous cement pit. One hopes the Ayerses will not be inspired to teach the children about virgin sacrifices.

The guided tour wraps in the Ayers' front room, which does double duty as a museum for Far East treasures--or tsotchkes, depending on how you look at it. The walls are covered with Asian artwork. From the ceiling dangle numerous Japanese lanterns. Inexplicably, a bunk bed draped with silks from Mongolia and Tibet sits in the middle of the room.

The mysterious Jeff will not be joining us today, admits Lisa, as he is not feeling well. Suddenly, she leaps up and crosses the room to the lower bunk bed, where she begins rummaging under the pillow. "Ah ha!" she exclaims, pulling out a rather confused box turtle. This particular turtle also has been under the weather, it turns out, and is trying to rebuild its immune system by nestling on a hot pad that the Ayerses have provided.

"Sometimes I think Jeff was abducted by aliens," laughs Lisa. "His whole theory was, 'If you build it, they will come.' "

Lisa remembers asking him, "Build what? Who will come?"

She smiles, looking down at the turtle in her lap. "I'm still waiting for the answer."

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From the December 5-11, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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