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It's hard to miss Thomas John Carlson. Usually in a casual button-down shirt, sporting amber aviator sunglasses and generally looking like the missing redheaded cast member of "Starsky and Hutch," he's easily recognized in a crowd. It also helps, of course, that he's become a Jersey City art scene icon since he formally founded the Jersey City Art School (JCAS) three years ago in December 2009.

It's really hard to miss the school, too. In the past five years, it's grown from a homegrown outfit run unofficially out of Carlson's former two-bedroom in Hamilton Park to an established four-facility institution spanning most of Downtown Jersey City. They're also becoming a bigger force in the arts community overall through various collaborations. For example, JCAS has teamed up repeatedly with literary and art magazine Instigatorzine for Art Social events. In October, the school was a sponsor of the Jersey City Artists Studio Tour. They're kind of everywhere.

"I saw the hexagonal wood table you guys made for the glassblowing classes," this reporter said to Carlson at The Micks CD release party in Hoboken. "And it reminded me of the conference table the Legion of Doom uses -- you guys are a secret supervillain organization set on world domination, aren't you? Like a League of Createvil?" It's not a far-fetched idea; Carlson's 31st birthday was, after all, also the day Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east.

The evil artistic mastermind laughs and says, "Not supervillains. We're dupervillains."

Well, OK, they're not evil, but world domination -- or at least Jersey City domination -- seems to be definitely on their minds. The for-profit collective has plans to get a performance venue, tentatively dubbed JCAS Hall, rolling. They're getting some new classes this year, like an egg tempera class where students get to make their own paint, as well as ceramics courses using their brand new kilns. They also have several community arts projects in the works.

The Minneapolis native started the school as a way to help Jersey City residents express themselves and fine tune their artistic skills. Carlson, who studied illustration at the Ringling School of Art and Design and painting at the New York Academy of Art, understands the value of an art education and creative expression in general.

"The school is a community concept," he says. "In any community, you have many gyms and people go there because they see the results of physical exercise. There is creative exercise as well...I feel that it is mentally unhealthy for people to be a part of projects all day long at the office or wherever and never make the time to create something just for themselves. The uphill battle is exposing people to this idea."

It's a battle he's fought hard. In the school's first quarter, it offered drawing, painting and stained glass classes and also had its weekly figure drawing class. All these courses still exist in some form today and over the years, JCAS students have had the opportunity to study diverse disciplines like mosaic, digital photography, creative writing, glassblowing, figurative sculpture, jewelry making, dyemaking, bokashi composting and more. In the future, Carlson says he hopes to have more tech classes for kids and adults and also wants to create a large community woodshed and metalshop.

JCAS Hall, however, is one of the school's main objectives. It may eventually be located at the Jersey City Museum's 152-seat Caroline L. Guarini Theater. In June, when JCI spoke to Carlson about the museum's reopening, he says he and Joseph Scott, CEO of the Jersey City Medical Center which bought the financially troubled museum to keep it open, wanted to transform the space to host artist lectures, music concerts and perhaps the school's weekly Jersey City Film Forum. Plans for the venue, however, are currently on hold.

The school's other locations include Atelier at 326 Fifth St. (painting and ceramics), Ceramics (a garage on Fifth Street near the Sixth Street Embankment), Workshop at 313 Third St. (silk screening, etching press, artist studios) and Studios at 1 McWilliams Pl.

Running it all is, as one would imagine, a difficult task. "I'm working constantly," says Carlson. "If I'm not teaching, I'm working in the office, meeting people regarding future opportunities or showing studios."

Carlson has help from several local artists including various JCAS instructors and Associate Director Anne McTernan. She first started working with the school in March 2010 when she brought her raingarden design expertise to a project to renovate the school's backyard at its Fifth Street facility.

"I am Thomas's right-hand man, so to speak," she says. "The work I do with JCAS is very rewarding and I love being part of this organization. It's also given me the opportunity and momentum for my art baby, Art Activates, a mural project along the embankment alley."

Carlson was especially proud of the project, which has included work by Matt Caputo, Ivan Petro, Norman Kirby, Blair Urban, Ana Benaroya, Gail Boykewich and Carlson himself.

"Anne McTernan has been a great person that has brought a lot of great ideas to the table," he says, crediting McTernan for spearheading the initiative. "We are connecting these spaces with artists in the community."

Ultimately, Carlson hopes others in JC can get the joy he does out of his creative endeavors. Looking at his impressive portfolio as a painter and artist and watching him play with his five-piece art rock band Papermaker, it's easy to see that he enjoys what he does.

"A band is like the creative version of a football team. Being in a relationship with people where you are involved in creative collaboration is one of the most satisfying things I could do with my time. I highly recommend it," he says. "Papermaker is great because all five members are visual artists as well as musicians, so we also focus a lot on the projections that we have at our shows.

"Ultimately, I feel that everyone should take an art class because of the idea that you are the sole creator of that project. This idea can be applied to any medium and should be celebrated," he says. "Creating something, on your own, is essential to a persons health and confidence."

As JCAS celebrates its third anniversary on JC Fridays, Dec. 7, Carlson and the rest of the school's staff will be looking forward toward growing their institution and the arts community as a whole.

"We want to build a creative economy," says Carlson. "When people routinely have sell-out art shows that cater to all, in Jersey City in any one of its future art galleries, then I'll think about slowing down a little."

For JC Fridays, Dec. 7, JCAS will have an anniversary party at their main digs at 326 Fifth with food, drinks and art by Carlson, Caputo, Kirby, cpharrik, Ana Benaroya, Joe Velez, Ceallaigh Pender and Ryan McCallister. They will also have light designs by Norm Francoeur and one-day discounts on classes for the upcoming month. The event will run from 6 pm to 10 pm. Later that night, Papermaker will headline an unofficial after-party at Boca Grande, 564 Washington Blvd., at 1 am.

For more information, visit the JCAS website.

Photos courtesy of Thomas John Carlson

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