One River School in Englewood: Teaching art, in a new way

Former School of Rock CEO Matt Ross has founded the One River School in Englewood.

Former School of Rock CEO Matt Ross has founded the One River School in Englewood.

Go to the home page of the One River School in Englewood, and a bold claim will jump out at you: “Founded in September of 2012, One River School has embarked on a mission to change art education in America.”

Impossibly ambitious? Perhaps. But keep this in mind: By making it easier for aspiring musicians to play together with other musicians in bands, and perform in concert settings, School of Rock has changed music education in America. And One River School was founded by School of Rock’s former CEO, Matt Ross.

“When I left School of Rock,” says the Cresskill resident, who was with that company from 2005 to 2010, “I was really getting into visual arts. I studied it. I took classes. I read book after book. And I started thinking, ‘How come there’s no cool place for visual arts in the suburbs?’ ”

And so he created one.

One River School — the name refers to the fact that Englewood is just one river away from New York — has two art studios, one digital studio, and a gallery, and offers about 40 classes. It’s a modern-looking space with art on the walls, nearly everywhere you look.

A couple of thousand students have taken classes there so far, Ross says, and the long-range plan is for there to be a national network of art schools, just like there is now for School of Rock.

That said, there are some differences.

Whereas School of Rock caters to children and teens, One River School teaches adults, too: About one quarter of the clientele has been adults, Ross said.

A One River School student, with one of his projects.

A One River School student, with one of his projects.

And while One River School offers group classes (in addition to one-on-one instruction), the students’ projects are their own. No equivalent is really possible, in the art world, for School of Rock’s band-oriented model.

There are some strong similarities with School of Rock, too, though, including One River School’s philosophy of getting its students’ artwork out into the community. It has sponsored exhibits at the nearby Bergen Performing Arts Center (Ross is on the board of trustees there), the Garden State Plaza mall in Paramus, and other Jersey venues. A fall tour featuring pop-up exhibitions of works by some of its most serious teen artists, in venues from Boston to Washington, D.C., is currently being planned.

Ross says he sees the tour as “a way to celebrate, really, the audacity of what teens can do, given a professional studio, and great coaching, great education, and great mentoring.

“I’m really excited about it. It was inspired a little bit by one of the things that (School of Rock founder) Paul Green did. He took his most advanced teen players to Germany: They played at a Zappa festival, and blew people’s minds.

“He used to use the word ‘audacity’ a lot, and I appreciated where Paul was coming from. It’s audacious to show teenagers playing Frank Zappa’s music, and we think, in the same way, it would be amazing and audacious to show large-scale objects by a group of kids from Northern New Jersey in a pop-up exhibition in D.C.”

In the same way that School of Rock frequently organizes collaborations with successful working musicians, One River School brings in working artists to exhibit in its gallery space, and meet with students.

Students study a work of art at One River School.

Students study a work of art at One River School.

“I always thought it was important not just to have a curriculum that references living artists, but also to show the work of artists who are out there, working for a living,” says Ross. “We want to create a relevance, not just to the more famous artists who are showing in museums today, but artists who are showing on the Lower East Side, in their first show, or in Jersey City, or they just came out of an MFA program.

“The reason it’s important to me is so that a 15-year-old who comes here, goes, ‘Wow, that’s a 27-year-old artist, and they’re showing here, and they just had a show in New York. I can be an artist.’ It’s not this fantasy thing.”

Another similarity with School of Rock, Ross says, is the emphasis on fun.

“If it’s overly technical, from day one, it really smashes in the face of fun. We want it to be fun, and let the technical stuff sort of seep in.

“So people feel comfortable, they’re engaged, they’re hanging out with new peers and making new friends, and they are inspired by the space. Now they’re open, and now you can really go, ‘Let’s go work on this skill.’ ”

One River School’s current exhibition, through April 17, is “Video/Wallpaper,” a 28-foot multimedia mural by Siebren Versteeg. Upcoming exhibitions will focus on the works of Ted Gahl (April 23-June 5), Shara Hughes (June 28-July 31), Conor Backman (Aug. 6-Sept. 9), Ross Simonini (Sept. 17-Oct. 30) and Yevgeniya Baras (Nov. 5-Dec. 31).

For information about One River School’s classes, camps and exhibitions, visit oneriverschool.com.

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