Jay Zinn has loved art since age 5, when he drew Mickey Mouse on a paper bag to make a mask.
His parents took note, buying him art books and supplies and sending him to art schools. He gravitated toward illustrating, and after college he joined the U.S. Air Force, which employs its own artists to draw everything from planes to advertisements.
While he could draw accurate representations of almost anything, his hands-on learning wasn't enough to pass the Air Force's test for illustrators.
"I wound up in hospital administration," he said. That job didn't provide enough work to fill the day, so he spent hours studying the Bible.
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At age 24, he became a pastor.
Ten years ago, Zinn and his wife, Roseann, formed their third church, River's Edge Community Church in Davidson, which he still leads.
But his art dreams never died, and this year Zinn, 60, is living what he calls his "Cinderella story."
Describing Zinn's rise as an artist, one local gallery owner says, "Jay happened so fast."
Zinn's story was sparked by his son Aaron, 35, who also is an artist and who showed Zinn some painting done on steel that was part of the portfolio of Penny Lane, an art publishing company owned by Zinn's sister, Stephanie Jones.
Aaron saw that the steel art, while very different from his dad's realistic illustrations, could be popular in outdoor living spaces because the metal canvas could withstand weather.
Zinn took note, and on a six-week sabbatical this summer he gave it a try while staying in a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"I like the idea of working with the rust (on the steel) and the developed patterns and pulling out those patterns with my colors to create beautiful art," Zinn said.
He twice visited Mike Elsass, the steel artist from Ohio whose work Aaron had noticed at Penny Lane.
While their medium was similar, Zinn's work developed a distinct look.
"He looked at me (after the second visit) and said 'Jay, your schooling is done,' " Zinn said.
Zinn uses water and chemicals to create patterns on steel, which he then layers with mixed medium and spar urethane. The results are abstract images that Zinn said are "the most freeing kind of art I've ever done."
"I'm not confined with a bunch of voices telling me to paint between the lines," he said. "It's free-flowing and organic."
Zinn's work has caught the eye of several local art collectors, including Gabrielle Shain-Bryson, owner of Shain Gallery in Charlotte, and Gary Kerr, owner of the Fine Art Impressions, which has a studio in Davidson and others throughout the world.
"He's definitely adding something to the conversation of the centuries of conversation of art," said Kerr, who has photographed more than 10,000 paintings for clients as well-known as The Louvre.
"When I saw his stuff, the immediate thing that struck me was it's not been done that way before. It was really unique and striking."
Zinn's art made such an impression that Kerr, whose clients ship him paintings from around the world to photograph, agreed to take pictures of Zinn's steel paintings. The images are now available through Penny Lane.
Shain-Bryson, who says her gallery rarely accepts abstract art, asked Zinn to leave a few pieces with her when he and Aaron stopped in one day.
"I was very excited that she liked them," Zinn said. "Here I am for the first time just coming off the street and getting picked up by this gallery."
Shain-Bryson has visited Zinn's studio, which is his porch closed in with plastic, and invited him to do two shows at the Shain Gallery. The second will be on Jan. 27.
Zinn hopes the income from his paintings will supplement his pastor's salary and help fund his book publishing company, which published a revised version of his first novel, "The Unveiling."
"I never in my wildest dreams thought that one day this would happen to me," Zinn said.
"I have the ability to go in so many directions with my art."