DEMAREST, N.J.– Paint brushes stroke canvas in the large, upstairs studio at The Art School at Old Church in Demarest.
Students perfect their work in the same, high-ceilinged room where Masses were conducted over a century ago.
"The building was designated for God's work," said Exhibitions Director Mary Gagler of Tenafly. "Art is the secular version of God's work."
That's how artist Mikhail Zakin obtained the lease to the former Baptist church and community center and turned it into a non-profit art school over four decades ago.
"It's a community resource. It was already a gathering place," Gagler said. "So we kept the 'church' in the name."
Zakin passed the building on her way to Brooklyn to teach art classes and had a vision to create a place closer to home, Gagler said.
The school opened in 1974 and Zakin – who lived in Closter for over six decades – taught there until her death in 2012.
"It was founded on passion," Gagler said. "Everyone, including the staff, has a passion for art. It's an art oasis. You're surrounded by people who've surrounded their lives with art."
There are four studios in the roughly 3,500-square-foot school.
"Art isn't just in museums," said Gagler, 30, who took classes there as a teen before becoming an employee. "You can be a part of it. It was crucial in my development."
Judy Lynch of Harrington Park called TASOC "a hidden gem."
A few feet away from her, Norma Zeitlin of Fort Lee worked with acrylic and paper alongside women from Ridgefield Park.
"There's no pressure," said instructor Tom Pollock. "Everyone has their own take on what they want to do."
Paintings by student Nancy Michaels of Fort Lee were on display in the Café Gallery.
"Showing your work is a big part of your development as an artist," Gagler said.
Downstairs, women from Clifton, Cliffside Park, Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., Mahwah, Ramsey and Wayne, worked on ceramics.
"I've become addicted," said June Veenstra of Wayne. "It's very inspirational. There's lots of history. You can't beat it."
"Once you're an artist, you never want to stop," added former Indian Hills teacher Carol Mendelsohn of Ramsey. "It's a wonderful, happy journey."
The ceramics class also provided bonding time for mother and daughter Kathleen Boyle and Madeline Erdman, 15, of Clifton.
TASOC offers 90 classes and workshops per semester – on not just painting and ceramics, but also jewelry making, drawing, printmaking and cultural arts.
The summer semester last six weeks, while the others are 10.
A faculty show is set for September.