Artist Zack Jones' Colorful Creation Welcomed Visitors To Malvern
When a fire raged through Mulholland Grocery, Malvern didn’t just lose its only grocery store on a historic block it’s called home for over 100 years.
Also lost was a focal point for the community in the colorful form of a mural that marked the town as a welcoming home to Wabash Trace bicycle riders.
The “Wabash Escape” mural, conceived and painted on the north wall of the grocery was completed in 2018 by Malvern artist Zack Jones. The 30-foot tall, wall length mural depicted a bike rider on the trace surrounded by the flora and fauna of the Loess Hills. Jones was inspired by the work of Norman Rockwell and intended the piece to represent the community’s dedication to being a bike rider destination.
“As you come down that hill, it’s the first thing you see,” said Jones, a Malvern native. “Even in the winter months and it’s gray and not so inspiring, you still have this colorful summer scene that kind of sets the stage for downtown.”
The fire broke out around 6 p.m. on Dec. 13 at 409 Main St. Fire departments from all over southwest Iowa battled the blazed for over two hours. Miraculously, the fire was predominantly confined to the store and its second floor. The neighboring Moreau’s Bäckerei & Pizzeria sustained only smoke and water damage.
The last of the 126-year old building, including the mural wall, came down Dec. 15. The rubble remains as state fire marshal investigators continue their investigation into the cause of the blaze that gutted the building owned by the Tom Mulholland family.
Jones was actually in Arizona attending a wedding at the time. His mother called him with the bad news, “Mulholland’s is on fire.”
“At that point, I was like this could be bad but I was pretty optimistic that they’d get on top of it and get it out,” Jones said.
More phone calls, texts and video messages followed. At that point, Jones switched on the Mills County Emergency 911 scanner app.
He was crestfallen as he listened in.
“At one point it looked like the whole block was going to go,” he said. “If they could reduce it to just Mulholland’s, I felt like I wouldn’t be happy but I’d have been content that it was stopped there. And luckily the whole block didn’t go. I was in Arizona but my mind was back here re-living it through a smart phone and messages and photos.
“It was surreal. It didn’t really seem like it was happening.”
After initial excavation work, some of the walls, including a large portion of the mural on the north wall, remained standing. That got Jones’ hopes up that the historic building could somehow be preserved. He had seen the Mercer building in Omaha’s Old Market, which suffered a devastating gas line explosion in 2016, saved and re-opened this past year. He thought, why not this historic building in Malvern?
“The walls were intact and I thought maybe they can save it.”
But it wasn’t to be. Two days after the fire, a storm brought heavy winds that toppled the remaining walls.
“It was a roller coaster,” Jones said. “You’re trying to stay optimistic and then slowly it’s like salting the wound.”
For the city of Malvern, which has heavily invested in revitalization of its historic downtown, the mural along with the neighboring bike tree sculpture by Malvern metals artist Orlo “Woody” Jones, were community landmarks. The bike tree was not damaged in the fire.
Jones said the Wabash Trace has been around for over three decades but it’s been only in the last decade communities like Malvern have begun to fully capitalize on the value of the recreational trail.
“For 20 years there were no bike racks or bike signage. Nothing to identify or welcome visitors to town,” he said. “The whole idea was to make a statement and help brand us as a bike friendly community. Which was working.”
What the loss of the store means for the community is incalculable – as a grocery provider, a community hub and a link to the town’s history. Jones grew up in the store, working as a stocker and grocery boy from seventh grade through graduation. His grandparents were one time co-owners and close friends of the Mulholland family.
When he was approached by the Malvern Area Betterment Association to paint the mural that would eventually adorn the north wall, he jumped at the chance. The mural represents three total months of work over a period of more than a year. At just over 30 feet by 65 feet, the Wabash Escape was Jones’ largest work, rivaling a mural he painted in Carson measuring 20 feet by 100 feet.
The original MABA beautification grant was to have the mural cover about half the wall but once Jones got to work, the project grew to consume the entire wall.
“I knew I was going to have to look at it every day and it would have driven me nuts to only have half of it painted,” he said.
After doodling loose ideas for months he came up with the concept of a bike rider setting out on the Wabash trace. He had originally intended to show the rider coming at the viewer but something about that didn’t sit right with him.
“I learned in portraiture that sometimes people look and it reminds them of someone and it might not be someone they want to be reminded of,” he said. “I thought it might be more interesting to have the bicyclist riding away.”
He ran it by the MABA board and they loved the idea. Visitors always seemed curious about who the rider was. Which is exactly what Jones hoped for in conceiving the piece that he hoped would serve as an invitation to not just enjoy the Wabash Trace but also Malvern.
“It’s kind of a mystery,” he said. “The mystery of the artist is to have your imagination fill in the missing blanks.”
The bigger mystery might now be what’s next for Malvern’s only grocery store. The fire investigation is still on-going and while there’s been no word on whether Mulholland Grocery will rebuild, Jones is confident the store will return in some form.
“A lot of us that would like to see a facade at the very least that represents that same era of architecture but that ultimately comes down to what Tom wants to build,” Jones said.
Driving into town or walking by that corner of Main Street remains hard for Jones.
“You can’t help but look. It’s this big black mess. It’s debris. And there’s still a smell to it. The energy is no longer there. A grocery store, even in a small town like Malvern, there’s always people coming and going and running in and out. There’s always activity.
“And that’s absent now.”