Contemporary art school redefines standards of art education



The children were innocently making art.

But not run-of-the-mill hand turkey art, which youngsters create by dipping their hands in brown paint, smushing their fingers on paper and adorning the “bird” with warm-tone feathers.

Rather, the kids, Julianna, 5, and Matteo, 6, were printmaking using photographs they cut out from magazines. Using the work of mixed media artist James Verbicky as their visual reference, a serenade of “Everlong” by the band Foo Fighters played in the background as the young visuals learned to understand just what they were producing.

In that moment, art education had transformed.

The One River School of Art + Design in Middletown teaches children, adolescents and adults how to create compelling contemporary art through a proprietary curriculum.

Joe Kaplan, Director of One River in Middletown, said One River founder, Matt Ross, spent six years developing a state-of-the-art curriculum for learners of all ages.

“Matt is not an artist himself but he learned a lot about (art) and spoke with contemporary artists to determine what would make One River different … We want (students) to have a great time but the students will also learn techniques, students will learn about the artists that inspired the course work. One River encourages a deeper understanding (of art).

“The program is designed to create a project over a month. There is a lot more involved. Students are learning and sketching (ideas) out and not jumping right into a project. To measure how successful programs are is to see kids quoting the vocabulary, terms and techniques they have learned,” Kaplan explained. (Students) are not only showing off their work, they are talking about it.”

Courses such as digital art, drawing, painting, sculpting, cartooning, manga, and illustration are offered at One River School of Art + Design. Students may opt for “shuffle” courses, catered to accommodate each age level, which allows students to explore different types of mediums. Courses for experienced artists are available.

“The shuffle is the foundational class that we really try to have all students go through for one, two or three months. This allows students to go through a cycle of all mediums including painting, drawing, sculpting and mixed media,” Kaplan said.

Speaking on the varying levels of experience that may be exhibited by students, Kaplan said, “The teachers go through a training program with us about how not to teach just one way across the board.”

“Snapshots” outline the vocabulary terms, artists and concepts children and adolescents will learn in the classroom. The snapshots were created for students’ parents who would like to remain informed about what their child is learning at One River School.

Kaplan said the artistic institution sheds light on teaching “through the living arts.” Part of this experience, Kaplan said, involves the exhibitions of local artists in their gallery on site.

“The students get to literally meet talk and meet with the artists. We think this really helps the kids and students connect with their art,” Kaplan said. He added that a different artists’ work will be featured every two or three months.

According to the school’s website, “Our exhibition program has become a national taste-maker for emerging artists across the country. We present artwork from the contemporary art space in our school galleries which supports our mission to teach about contemporary art within our communities by providing regular opportunities to engage with compelling artwork.”

Leah Cahill, a teacher at One River School, strives to make learning fun for her students.

“I don’t ever want art to feel like school,” Cahill said. “I like to engage everybody and allow students to get to know each other. Then, (the students) can really understand the artists that is being presented to them. I want students to feel inspired to get down to business and create art, but (the students) should enjoy (the class) socially as well.”

Speaking to a young artist, Natalia Demarco, 10, is enrolled in the children’s cartooning class. Natalia enjoys learning about illustrator Topher MacDonald, artistic techniques, and paintbrushes. Her class is exploring the theme “embracing weirdness.”

“I never knew about all these artists and how they changed the world,” Natalia said.

Showing off her collage, Natalia explained her “embracing weirdness” drawing she said has developed over several course sessions. Natalia cleverly combined the physiques of predators and prey – such as a kitten-shark hybrid. She enjoys embracing artistic oddities.

Ella Drach, 13, is enrolled in a teen drawing course. She credits One River School for enhancing her skills as an artist. The teen is currently creating learning to personify seasons in illustration.

For more information or to view the classes available for adults, teenagers and children, visit