Jessica Jones of Wooster wasn’t planning to try to make a living solely as an artist until her husband died in 2017, and she became a widow at age 29, raising two young children alone.
An emergency fund that she and her husband, Monte, had didn’t last long.
“I hit a little bit of a fork in the road, where I knew I had to do something to provide for the family and couldn’t afford to stay home,” she said.
“It was a little bit of an experiment: Can I take this [art] further? And it’s worked out so far.”
She’s working on a downtown Conway mural, a vibrant depiction of pollinators — a bee and a butterfly with a background of flowers — on a building at North and Front streets.
Jones, 32, grew up in Jacksonville, Florida.
She wanted to be a horse breeder, and she did an equine apprenticeship at a farm through a community college in Tucson, Arizona. After graduation, she managed a breeding farm in Colorado “and decided I wanted to do something a little more impactful,” she said.
She and Monte moved to Arkansas eight years ago because of Glenhaven Ministries, which started in Plainview, then moved to Conway. Monte was the executive director of the organization, as well as director of operations at Deliver Hope in Conway.
Jones worked as an equine professional through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association program at Glenhaven Ministries.
She said she and Monte had decided when she was pregnant with their son, Amadeus, now 4, that she would be a stay-at-home mom. Monte died of sudden cardiac arrhythmia at home on July 17, 2017.
“People just don’t expect someone who is young and healthy to die, but those things do happen,” she said.
Their daughter, Ariadna, who will be 7 in January, was 4 1/2 at the time; it was three days before the couple’s son’s second birthday.
Jones had to support her family by herself, and it was a daunting prospect.
“I’ve done art all my life,” she said, and she had started painting murals before Monte died.
“I knew I had a lot of skills — but even horses, I didn’t enjoy as much as a profession … art was different,” she said.
Monte had made lots of connections in Conway through his ministry, she said, and her artwork was already on display around town.
“I’d already built up some clout,” Jones said. “I said, ‘I’ll do it month by month and see if I need to go get a real job.’”
She painted bright, happy peacocks on a building on Front Street and a challenging, detailed octopuslike creature on the wall of a former coffee shop in Donaghey Hall at the University of Central Arkansas. Since then, she’s added a floral mural for The Brick Room in downtown Conway and murals inside King’s Music next door, as well as murals on the WunderHaus restaurant building and inside other businesses.
Her newest endeavor in downtown Conway, which she refers to as The Pollinator, was the vision of building owner Pete Tanguay.
Tanguay retired more than a year ago when he sold Rock-Pond Solutions, which was in the building that he and his wife, Lynn, own at Front and North streets. He’s also a member of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Board “and real involved in downtown Conway,” he said. “We love Conway.’
The Tanguays’ building was a potential site selected by the Conway Public Art Board for the first Arkansas U.S. Fish and Wildlife endangered-species mural — the hellbender salamander.
“I just couldn’t get excited about it,” Tanguay said. Although he thought the salamander had “a lot of merit,” it wasn’t what he wanted. “It kind of fizzled out,” he said of the project.
“But during the process, I realized that’s a great wall for a mural, and I love downtown Conway,” he said.
Tanguay said he knew Jones through some of their mutual friends and was happy to have a local artist to hire for the project.
“She’s done some fantastic murals,” he said.
“I’m very big on the pollinator theme and how important it is to have bees [and butterflies], he said.
“We don’t realize how important some of those fundamental laws of nature are. We think we can manufacture everything and make our food,” he said.
A gardener, Tanguay said he likes the concept of getting back to nature, and the mural depicts that.
“I wanted that right on top of all the brick and pavement,” Tanguay said.
He and Jones discussed the mural design for a while before the project got underway.
“We went round and round for months on the design. I thought she was just going to throw her iPad at me, but she didn’t,” he said.
“I’m very happy I’m going to have a local artist do it,” Tanguay said. “I think it’s going to be beautiful. Every day, I look at it and think it’s going to be amazing.”
Tanguay also said his mother-in-law, Marilyn Rishkofski, who is an artist, gave valuable input on the project.
“She brought a real kind of art perspective to it. I’m looking in terms, does this do the pollinator theme? But she really understood the more fine points of art. In a mural, you need to have a certain focal point. To have that input was amazing,” he said.
For example, he wanted orange flowers and an orange butterfly. Rishkofski suggested purple flowers to make the orange butterfly pop.
Jones said her goal is to complete the mural by Christmas, if the weather cooperates. She’s using a high-quality exterior paint and an artist-grade acrylic spray paint.
The mural is her largest to date, and she said it was intimidating at first.
She recalled that when she first started working on the project, a little girl of 8 or 9 was riding in the backseat of a car that drove by.
“She rolled her window down, and she said, ‘You can do it!’ She didn’t know how much I needed that right then,” Jones said, laughing. “That’s one nice thing about doing it in public — the positive feedback.”
Last week as she stood in front of the mural, a passenger in a truck driving by looked over and said through his open window, “It looks beautiful.”
Phillip Fletcher, executive director of City of Hope Outreach, drove by in his Jeep a second later and shouted: “Jessica, you’re killing it!”
“He and my husband were friends,” she said.
Jones said Monte would have been proud of what she’s accomplished with her art.
“He supported me; he supported me in everything,” Jones said. “The community has been very faithful, and I’ve continuously been able to stay and work; that’s been the past 2 1/2 years.”
Jones said she also does work on canvas, mostly commission-based art, as well as live paintings for various events.
“I’ve just had better luck with the murals; I think it’s my niche,” she said.
“My kids and I, we travel — I’d love to be able to travel to places and paint murals. I’m also content as long as Arkansas keeps me busy. I have a couple of jobs in the works in different cities in Arkansas.
“I’ll paint all of Conway if they let me, but I’d like some other artists to paint, too. I think there’s beauty in the variety.”
Jones said she plans to continue to make a career as a muralist/artist.
“The truth is, the market could crash, and [the public] might not put as much value in art as they do now, and I would have to go get a job waiting tables,” she said.
But not now. She’s got a butterfly to paint, and she knows something about spreading her wings.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-5671 or email@example.com.