By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
OAKLAND, Iowa, Nov. 17, 2015 — Getting through this southwest Iowa town of 1,500 on U.S. Highway 59 is now taking people a good bit longer than it did a couple months ago. That’s because our artist pal Zack Jones has an eye-grabbing new mural — the whole side of a building 100 feet long and 20 feet high in the old business district. It’s impossible not to turn around and go spend some time studying it, once you catch a glimpse of it from the highway.
“Our plan was that this would create conversation,” said Jones, of nearby Malvern, “and it has. The people of Oakland say that there are 4,000 cars per day coming by on Highway 59, so a lot of people are talking about it.”
Here’s the mural on Nov. 10, nearly finished, although touch-up and then epoxy coating must follow.
For the 41-year-old Jones, who decided in about 1998 that he was going to pursue a career in art, this is as you would imagine his largest work yet. Big pieces have been a calling card for him, and some of that is because he can do them more comfortably than most artists. He is a big guy, 6 ft. 5 in. tall and 215 pounds, an All-State football player and state high jump champion for old Malvern High School, then an All-American decathlete at Arizona’s Mesa Community College, where he earned his associate degree in art.
“From my own perspective, I feel like my art has matured just recently,” Jones said. “But in all honesty, I still don’t feel like a pro.”
However, he works and is collected like he is one. You can now find Jones’ pieces in public buildings, businesses and private collections all over Iowa, Nebraska and Arizona, too. His home base is a 142-year-old former Presbyterian Church he bought and has renovated to become his studio and home gallery in Malvern. He calls it “Project Art Church,” and it’s worth doing a “Zack Jones tour” of that community.
If you make that trip, you will see a tremendous amount of revitalization that is happening right now throughout Malvern’s business district. You can’t say that Jones has made that happen, but he has definitely helped inspire it. His artistic and creative presence in Malvern — and his encouragement of live music and other arts — have helped draw several thousand visitors to the town every year. Local businesses have responded and Malvern is more lively today than it’s been in half a century.
“I like the idea of using the arts to bring revitalization into small towns,” Jones said Saturday, when he took a brief break from painting here. “You look at these classic old buildings in Oakland’s business district here. You can tell that a lot of them need help. Some of them may be beyond repair. But there are a lot of people out there who are looking for old historic buildings, just like these, that then can re-condition and become businesses that will attract people.”
Artist Zack Jones on the scaffold. The weather was so nice from mid-September to early-November, when he was doing most of the work, that he often had people of all ages stopping by to watch him. And he’d strike up conversations with them. “Zack has been great to take time and visit with people,” said Gayle Strickland, the project coordinator. “He’s had a real positive reaction in the community, not only for himself but for art in general. People say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know artists could be normal like he is.’ “
Like Malvern, Oakland is only about 30 miles outside the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area. If towns that ideally located develop attractions, then city dwellers will definitely come. And now Oakland indeed has at least one big attraction — this yet-untitled mural. “I’m just not good at titles,” Jones said, wincing. “The Oakland people will come up with a name for it.”
The mural is the $20,000 centerpiece of a major clean-up in the traditional Oakland business district, which local folks refer to as “Old Town.” That’s because over the decades, most retail businesses have moved to the south part of town along Highway 59, and that is called “New Town.”
The old two- and three-story buildings in Old Town may look like “classics,” but some of them have also become heaps. In fact, in 2011, the old Masonic Lodge fell to the south and crushed about one-fourth of the large Nishna Heritage Museum, which had occupied three or four storefront properties. The rubble sat for three years, looking tough.
“Everybody wanted to clean up the mess and do something nice in that space,” said Gayle Strickland, a retired teacher who was ready to become more involved in community projects. “Then in the summer of 2014, the Honor Society from the high school volunteered to lead a clean-up as a community service.”
When the kids got involved, so did a lot of adults. Strickland went to work seeking out and applying for several grants to help.
“I was at a meeting of the Western Iowa Development Association, and I was talking to the director Lori Holste,” said Strickland. “I told her I thought we ought to consider a big mural on the side of the museum now that we were getting the site cleaned up. We were going to put a nice garden in here, with landscaping, but having a distinctive mural beside it would really give us something different. She gave me a list of names of artists she’s heard about doing some large projects.”
Strickland started contacting them, and Zack Jones was the first and most enthusiastic to respond.
Grants that came in included $10,000 from the Iowa Arts Council, $7,600 from Farm Bureau, $5,000 from Pioneer Seed, $5,000 from the Pottawattamie County Community Foundation, with others from Promise Partners of Council Bluffs and Keep Iowa Beautiful.
How do Oakland people like it, now that it’s almost completed?
“It’s nice, really very nice,” said Craig Hummel, whose insurance office is across the street. “We’ve been able to observe Zack working on it since day one, and it’s been fun to see it develop. And with the mural and all the landscaping that’s gone into the garden, that is a huge improvement in a place that was a real problem.”
Loren Lyman, 80, who has been barbering for 52 years in his fine old building across Main Street from the mural, is one of Jones’ biggest local fans. “Zack has done a great job on that mural, and he’s just as personable as he could be,” said Lyman. “I’ve really enjoyed watching his progress and talking to him about it.”
In fact, Lyman decided to join the revitalization. He hired a commercial painter to do the top story of his barber shop building, and he painted the lower front himself.
Strickland said she’s noticed owners of other neighboring buildings sprucing up, too.
And that’s how it can happen in these small towns.
We use the photos and captions here to help tell the story.
This view looks from west to east, at the north exterior wall of the Nishna Heritage Museum in Oakland. You can see artist Zack Jones on the scaffold at the far end of the mural. The roses there are part of the landscaping in the new Nishna Heritage Garden, which will be a mini-park where dilapidated buildings once stood — and then collapsed.
Jones, paint brush in hand, on the scaffold at midday on Saturday, Nov. 14.
“I’ve done the painting, big as it is, in a traditioinal style,” said Jones, “meaning I worked with a paint palette the same way I would if I were doing a smaller oil on canvas. Lots of mixing paint and color.” His palette, for the mural, became a big old baking pan he found when he bought a former church and congregate meal site to become his studio in his nearby community of Malvern. Before you look at the next photo, note the odd taped-together box sitting on that light pole on Jones’ scaffold.
Here’s the inside view of the taped-up box on the light pole we mentioned in the previous caption. Jones uses the box to shade his laptop computer, on which he has loaded numerous sketches and photos he has used to help him paint the huge mural.
The artist drinks Gatorade on warm days when he is painting, and then he recycles the Gatorade bottles to become his paint containers.
More essentials for the serious artist — couple of coolers, bucket of water & a squirt bottle to clean with, and “an old-school transistor radio” so he can listen to music and college football while he’s working.
Jones has used acrylic paint to do the mural in Oakland, and he says “it’s almost rubbery when it dries.” As he was telling us this, he was peeling layers of it off his painting gloves.
This photo, by Jones himself in mid-October, was a nice view of the west end of the mural in progress. He took the photo from the man-lift he was using to paint the higher portions of the picture.
The farmer portrayed in the cornfield is “my idea of what a southwest Iowan looks like,” Jones said. However, he did somewhat model it on Frank Fay, who has an acreage southwest of Malvern near the home of Jones’ parents. “I had already done a small oil painting of Frank that’s a little like this view,” Jones said. “Gayle Strickland (coordinator of the mural and garden projects in Oakland) saw that painting and liked it, so I painted a similar figure into the mural.”
The middle and east portions of the mural. The middle section portrays an oak grove and playground, which Jones had earlier photographed in the town, after getting permission from the children’s parents to take the photos when the kids were using the recreation equipment. The farm and country lane views in the east part of the mural are also scenes that Jones found around Oakland.
The Nishna Heritage Garden has been constructed and landscaped with lots of help — both from professionals and from volunteers in Oakland. It includes a walkway made with these cool second-hand paving bricks.
Across Main Street and just south from where the new mural is located, you see the old Oakland Hotel, which has always perched almost like a crown on the head of the business district. It hasn’t been used as a hotel for more than 50 years and now sits idle. Your imagination is dull if you don’t look at it and think what it could become. But so far, it’s become a money pit for several owners who initially had ideas of restoration and renovation.
Some of the other classic buildings — or maybe they are just old buildings with classic facades — that are north of the old Oakland Hotel on Main Street. Some are occupied. A few are not.
Classic former bank building, also a former City Hall, is east across Main Street from the old Oakland Hotel. This building now holds business offices.
We also had to share this photo of another new and large Jones art installation. This painting, 9 feet by 6 feet, is titled “Greene County — Home,” and now hangs in the east lobby of the newly expanded Greene County Medical Center in Jefferson. It features several icons of the county, including the well-known Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower. Jones completed this painting late in the summer.
Home base for artist Zack Jones is the “Project Art Church” just above the business district in his hometown of Malvern. The 142-year-old structure is the oldest building in town. It was used as a Presbyterian Church from 1873 until it was “decommissioned,” as Jones says, in 1969. Subsequently the downstairs was used as a congregate meals site. Jones bought it in 2012 and it is now his studio and gallery. “My next big project is painting a full sky scene in the upstairs of the Project Art Church,” he says. “It’s got a 27-foot high ceiling with 12 gothic windows, each of them 11 feet high. The sky scene will include all four walls and ceiling.” He will host Holiday Shows of his own work and some from other artists on the two Saturdays following Thanksgiving, on Nov. 28 and on Dec. 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This photo was provided by Jones.
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