MALVERN - Artist Zack Jones has worked in various mediums.
Digital animation, watercolor, film, pen and ink, oil on canvas.
Nowhere on that list does “139-year-old former Presbyterian church” appear.
But that is exactly the “medium” Jones is working in with his Art Church Project.
Jones bought the former Presbyterian church just off Main Street in Malvern on the brick-lined street corner of Prospect and East Fourth Streets from the Malvern Historical Society last May.
Ever since, Jones, 38, has split his time between his more traditional art projects like painting his native Malvern landscape and restoring the church as a combined living and work space.
“Just looking at the building you can see the locally cut wood and beams and real hand craftsmanship, all before electricity went into this building,” Jones said. “It accents what I do. It’s an extension of my work.”
When Jones returned to Malvern in 2006 from Arizona, his goal was to create his own live-work studio space. The cost was prohibitive in Arizona, whereas in southwest Iowa, space was available and affordable.
“It kind of happened out of necessity, but I’ve always enjoyed old buildings. I’m a big advocate of historical preservation,” he said.
Last spring, Jones was commissioned to do a painting for Kohll’s pharmacy in Malvern and spent two weeks in the church working on the painting. Jones fell in love with the 27-foot ceilings, quiet space and the amazing natural light that poured in through the 11-foot gothic windows. The church portion of the building had been vacant since 1969. The lower portion had been used as a senior meal site from the 1980s to just prior to Jones’ acquiring the property.
“When I initially looked at it (the church), I respected the uniqueness and the architecture of it,” Jones said. “It was perfect. It had a creative flair but it needed a lot of work. Now that I’m actually in the building, you look at the size of the windows and realize it was built in 1872 and you know how many buildings are kind of cookie cutter now, and it was obvious, this wasn’t that.”
Jones admits he got a few funny looks when he informed the Malvern Historical Society of his plans for the church. The senior group that had been meeting in the church basement, as it turned out, was looking for a new location when Jones came along. Jones assisted the seniors in finding a new location on Main Street and he went about buying the building from the historical society.
“They were supportive to having something interesting in the space. I think most people just want to see it used for something because there’s a lot of sentimental value in the building,” he said.
Jones has had help from family, friends and neighbors to help get the church into shape. The lower level is Jones’ living space while the main floor is his studio and gallery. Like any artwork, the space never feels quite finished.
“The things you did, the things you worked on before start breaking and then you have to work on them again. I’m deep enough in I’m fixing things I’ve already fixed.”
Jones’ recent “Trees” exhibition on Mother’s Day drew a good crowd and gathered some compliments about the old church some of the town residents still remember attending Sunday school in. The gallery itself has regular hours open to the public or by appointment.
“It’s the perfect setting,” he said. “I’d organized several shows just to have them, but now I’ve got my own place where I can hopefully continue to do shows and have some live music.”
That’s Jones’ other passion: live music. With connections to the music scene in Arizona, Jones hopes to have a few shows a year in the church highlighting some of his favorite musicians just a little off the beaten path.
Jones’ intent from the beginning was to re-purpose the space as an artist loft and studio but his vision has always included a part gallery, part music venue vibe.
The space will host art openings featuring oil and mixed media paintings by Jones and perhaps other artists. Seasonal acoustic concerts and other specialty events will be held in the near future. The space is also available as a quaint wedding chapel for 75-100 people.
Since moving back to his hometown after a decade in Arizona, Jones has focused his work on painting the scenes of his childhood. And while he still does commissions to pay the bills, it’s Malvern and southwest Iowa – the neighborhoods, the streets, the people of his youth and, yes, the trees – that runs like a ribbon through his work.
“One of the things I didn’t realize I missed so much was the trees,” he said. “That’s what I missed before relocating back here. The big cottonwoods and the oaks.”