Mid-morning sunlight floats through the panes of the gothic church windows, casting pale shadows on a tall, creamy canvas. On it is an ornate angel hovering over a cornfield. Nearby, on another canvas, is the sketched outline of two sheep in a field.
Southwest Iowa artist Zack Jones is preparing these oil paintings, and seven more, for his next show. Jones, 38, has been a working artist for more than a decade, but this show will be unlike any other. It will be held in what may prove to be the artist's biggest work of all: a church in tiny Malvern, Iowa.
He purchased the 138-year-old former Presbyterian church, just a block east of Main Street, six months ago. Ever since, he's been transforming it into a living space, a working studio and a welcoming gallery.
Jones sees the restoration as a piece of his artistic journey.
“Part of my growth as an artist is to come back and paint and retrace the steps of my childhood,” said Jones, a Malvern native. “This building accents what I do.”
Project Art Church, as he calls it, allows Jones to indulge something else he treasures — preserving and sustaining small towns.
“I like to highlight the small towns because there are so many things going against small towns,” he said.
Malvern is glad to have him. Bev Dashner, president of the Malvern Area Betterment Association, said residents were pleased to hear of his plans.
“It was a happy event when we discovered he was moving back,” she said. “Not too many towns like ours have an artist in residence.”
Jones graduated with his 32 classmates from Malvern Community High School in 1992. He attended Iowa Western Community College and learned to be a machinist. After six months of working as a machinist in nearby Red Oak, he packed up his car and headed to Arizona, a place he had visited once for a family wedding.
In Arizona, Jones attended Mesa Community College and earned an associate degree in art. After that, Jones went to Phoenix Art Institute and studied computer animation. With a glut of animators looking for jobs, Jones found himself working in a darkroom at a professional photography lab. It wasn't the ideal job, but Jones knew he was learning more about colors working with filters in the lab.
“I knew I wanted to be in a creative field,” he said.
Soon he picked up a set of paints.
A chance encounter at an art walk in Scottsdale led Jones to Cave Creek, Ariz., where he eventually met his mentor, Sergio Ladron de Guevara. De Guevara taught Jones the basics of oil painting and, most importantly, to “paint with love and to paint with honesty.”
The importance of that quality led Jones back to Malvern in 2006.
In the past six years, Jones has painted the scenes of his childhood, as well as many commissioned pieces, which help pay the bills. He has connected with the local art community through the Old Market Artist Gallery in Omaha. Several of his paintings are part of Creighton University's art collection.
Jones fell in love with the church space when he borrowed it from the Malvern Historical Society to work on a painting last spring. He spent about two weeks painting in the old sanctuary.
“The lighting is killer,” he said.
From a practical standpoint, Jones said, it's financially advantageous to own his own gallery. Most galleries take a 40 to 50 percent share in the price of a painting when it's sold. In his own gallery, Jones can keep prices affordable. In addition, galleries sometimes want only one type of painting or one theme. With his own gallery, Jones can paint and display whatever he wants.
From an artistic and personal standpoint, the church building gives Jones the chance to meet and interact with people who buy his paintings. It also provides a comfortable place to work and live. And it allows him to bring art to southwest Iowa — something he didn't find as a boy growing up there.
“The only exposure I had in small town Iowa to art was Bob Ross,” he said.
The church Jones bought is a typical white, clapboard country church. The building was decommissioned as a church in 1969, and most recently served as a meal center for senior citizens. The pews and church fixtures are gone. The original walls and ceiling are covered in what looks like a mid-century fiberboard. The floor is covered in practical navy blue carpet. The roof was replaced about 12 years ago.
But 11-foot-tall gothic church windows remain, as well as the carved ceiling beams. The altar still is clearly visible, as is an alcove where a cross probably once hung. Outside, the steeple still towers over the town.
And even now, when people enter the church, their behavior changes, said Jones, who recently hosted his 20-year class reunion in the sanctuary.
The building poses lots of challenges. The sanctuary area is not insulated and does not have a heating or cooling system. Wood siding and trim need replacing. Bricks all around the building need work.
Still, Jones, who is handy but not trained in the work of a handyman, has turned the basement into a living area, painting studio, bedroom and kitchen. His latest project: pouring a concrete kitchen countertop. He reads books and watches videos to learn to fix things. Neighbors and friends have pitched in, too.
“I'm trying to do it on an artist's budget, which means I'm doing a lot of the work myself,” he said.
The project might be intimidating, but Jones has no doubts about the outcome.
Standing in the center of the sanctuary, surrounded by the beginning of the nine paintings that will make up his new series, Jones held his arms aloft and proclaimed: “I have faith.”