The Art of Cool



One River School closes the gap in arts ed­u­ca­tion be­tween cities and sub­urbs

When Matt Ross looked for a cool art class near his Cresskill home in 2010, he no­ticed the sub­urbs had al­most noth­ing to of­fer. While New York City had many options, stu­dents in nearby sub­urbs look­ing for a hip, cur­rent art ed­u­ca­tion had few choices, de­spite be­ing just one river away from Man­hat­tan.

De­ter­mined to bring that ex­pe­ri­ence to Bergen County, Ross co­founded the One River School of Art and De­sign in En­gle­wood.

“Most art schools here are both old and tra­di­tional or they’re cutesy and crafty,” says Ross, who had been trav­el­ing to the city for adult art ed­u­ca­tion. “The more I fell in love with art, the more I re­al­ized we had a prob­lem in Amer­ica be­cause we weren’t cre­at­ing cool places for young peo­ple to learn how to make art.”

Ross sought a so­lu­tion to what he felt was our coun­try’s bro­ken arts ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. “In pub­lic school, art is taught in a very con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one’s projects look the same, so we don’t cul­ti­vate stu­dents who ac­tu­ally want to learn and stick with cre­at­ing things,” he says, not­ing that arts fund­ing is com­monly cut from school bud­gets al­to­gether. “So fun­da­men­tally, K-12 art ed­u­ca­tion has been com­pro­mised and it cer­tainly hasn’t evolved. And there are very few places for kids to go af­ter school near their home for a ‘wow’ ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Opened in 2012, One River School of­fers classes to stu­dents age 3 through adult, with cur­ricu­lums built around con­tem­po­rary art, in­spired by liv­ing artists cre­at­ing “cool, cur­rent and rel­e­vant” art to­day. Classes cover every­thing from draw­ing and paint­ing to sculp­ture in ei­ther a shuf­fle class, where the medium and the project change each month, or a fo­cus class, which al­lows stu­dents to study just one sub­ject.

Start­ing in third grade, stu­dents can also take digital art classes in the school’s high-tech digital suite, study­ing top­ics like anime, fash­ion de­sign and digital paint­ing.

“We use tablet-based tech­nol­ogy that al­lows stu­dents to cre­ate char­ac­ter and form by hand, so they learn ba­sic ana­log skills of draw­ing, and then use soft­ware like SketchBook Pro and Pho­to­shop to ma­nip­u­late those images,” says Ross, adding that stu­dents cre­ate 2D an­i­ma­tions that takes static char­ac­ters and cre­ates movement. “We in­te­grate au­dio so stu­dents are re­ally cre­at­ing the step­ping stones of an­i­ma­tion.”

The school’s pho­tog­ra­phy pro­gram teaches stu­dents the ba­sics of work­ing a cam­era and as­signs a new project each month.

“It could be as sim­ple as shoot­ing a por­trai­ture or ur­ban scene or do­ing close-up pho­tog­ra­phy, but we make sure to fo­cus on the art form,” Ross says. “We want stu­dents to add nu­ances that make th­ese pho­tos look unique.”

Ross knows first­hand the im­por­tance of en­hanced arts ed­u­ca­tion. As the found­ing CEO of School of Rock, the na­tion’s leader in mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion, he has seen count­less chil­dren find them­selves when they have a place to ex­plore their cre­ative side. “Here, in sub­ur­bia, we’re sports crazed,” he says, “so part of my mis­sion with School of Rock over the last 10 years has been to cre­ate great cre­ative en­rich­ment for kids who aren’t sports crazed. And now we’re adapt­ing vis­ual arts through a sim­i­lar process.”

Be­yond an in­com­pa­ra­ble arts ed­u­ca­tion, the school of­fers stu­dents a valu­able so­cial ad­van­tage as well. “Stu­dents find that they’re work­ing around like-minded, cre­ative kids who re­mind them of them­selves,” Ross says. “They can let their guard down and be them­selves. That’s as im­por­tant to our suc­cess as any­thing we teach.”

Twice a year, the school cel­e­brates the stu­dents with four-day ex­hi­bi­tions of their work. “We fill up all the walls in the fa­cil­ity. There are sculp­tures and paint­ings and there are an­i­ma­tions on our digital screens,” Ross says. “The stu­dents beam with pride show­ing their fam­ily and friends what they’ve done.”

This year, 11 stu­dents in the school’s teen art res­i­dency pro­gram are cre­at­ing bod­ies of work that will be dis­played across the coun­try in a se­ries of pop-up ex­hi­bi­tions.

“We’re giv­ing kids a mas­sive goal and then tak­ing them to ex­hibit in five cities,” he says. “Hope­fully, this in­spires an understanding of what it takes to be a real artist.”

The school also cu­rates solo ex­hi­bi­tions sev­eral times a year, dis­play­ing work from world-class emerg­ing artists in their front space. “Our mis­sion is to ex­pand peo­ple’s sense of what con­tem­po­rary emerg­ing art looks like by ex­pos­ing the pub­lic to th­ese artists,” says Ross, not­ing that the artists them­selves come in to give talks to guests and of­fer ad­vanced cri­tiques to stu­dents. “We want to show both stu­dents and young artists that we value their work and want to cel­e­brate them by giv­ing them a voice.”

Un­like most other art schools, One River School is not se­mes­ter based, so stu­dents can start any­time and sign up monthly. “Kids don’t get to just try things any­more be­cause the cost is too great, but af­ter a month here, if you don’t dig it, you can stop,” says Ross.

With a sec­ond school open­ing in Al­len­dale this fall, Ross hopes to bring the fran­chise to com­mu­ni­ties around the coun­try.

“Peo­ple can’t travel too far for weekly classes,” he says, “so for any­one who wants to learn to make art, we want to give them a great place to do that close to home.”

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