Three and a half months ago, Thomas John Carlson, of the Jersey City Art School, shook up Art Fair 14C with a wallful of historical paintings distinguished by their sensitivity, energy and imagination. The paintings were full of drama, struggle, and acute observations of human beings under duress. His turn at the fair reminded local art appreciators that Carlson is indispensable. He’s one of the best we’ve got.

Lately, Carlson has turned his attention to a different kind of battlefield: the chilly interior of a hospital. Alas, that hasn’t been by choice. Earlier this year, the painter was diagnosed with leukemia. 

Thomas John Carlson Jersey City

Cancer has not stilled his hand. Because he’s a habitual chronicler of his experience, and because he approaches every canvas with the diagnostic eye of a storyteller and the compassion of a teacher, he’s continued to do powerful work despite the challenges he’s facing.  

Carlson’s courageous new pieces capture the distinctive combination of hope, terror, and utter exhaustion common to those in the chemotherapy suite. He bestows dignity and weary grace on his fellow patients, chronicles their desperation and determination, and locates nervousness, defiance, and inner strength in their postures and facial expressions. If you’ve ever spent time in a cancer ward — and far too many of us have — you’ll recognize his subjects at once, even if you won’t know them by name. 

Carlson is in the middle of a taxing treatment, but he still found time to talk to us last week about his ordeal and his latest paintings.  Everyone at the Jersey City Times wishes him a full and speedy recovery.  He’s one of the most creative and prolific painters in town, and the scene isn’t the same without him.

Tris McCall/Jersey City Times:  Your hospital paintings demonstrate extraordinary sensitivity and a rare combination of beauty, horror, and honesty. They really get at what it feels like to be in the hospital — that complicated mixture of feelings that accompany treatment. Is this your first experience with hospitals? Or is this something you already know about? 

Thomas John Carlson: It’s not my first extended stay in a hospital. I had Covid in February 2021. I did a self-portrait every day — nine in total.

TM:  Were you blindsided by misfortune?

TJC: Yes. My wife and I were traveling in December, and my nose became red on the trip. When we got back to Jersey City, I had blood work done, and tons of tests for infectious diseases, too. I’d had a similar infection when I had Covid in 2021, so it was an indication that something was going on. The blood test numbers made the doctors tell me to go to the ER. 

I found a great oncologist and hematologist who did a bone marrow biopsy. That required a week at the labs. The art making I did at that moment of terror was helpful to take my mind off things. My wife, Liz, told me not to do too much research on the phone while we were waiting for the results.  

TM: What’s your present diagnosis?

TJC:  I have hairy cell leukemia, a lifelong cancer with one thousand people diagnosed per year. It’s a very rare and slow-growing blood cancer that has been in my system for more than five years. 

When I was treated for Covid in 2021, they noticed my white blood cells weren’t going back up. But the hospital didn’t diagnose the cancer then. Everyone just assumed that it was Covid’s fault. 

I’m in a similar situation with my white blood cells now. We know the booster treatments for white blood cells potentially grow the cancer. I have to wait for the hairy cells to leave my body, and then my bone marrow will have to get back to work, which takes time. So I will be in a bubble.

Thomas John Carlson Jersey City

TM: Are the current paintings a kind of therapy?  Or is painting something you simply have to do regardless of what’s going on in your life? 

TJC: I generally paint every day, and I do a lot of plein air works when I travel. In grad school, I did a lot of slice-of-life, realist oil paintings of all sizes that documented my life. When things like this happen — when I’m isolated in hospital room — I become the subject matter.

I have been quite sick, so the paintings are coming more slowly. It is a struggle. Chemotherapy is no joke.  I’ve had two very different drugs, and that means two very different sets of side effects.  Right now, those side effects are in full force.  

I have essentially zero immune system right now, and I have been having a string of low-grade fevers. That’s code red. I feel okay, but a fever in a neutropenic (too few white blood cells) state can be incredibly dangerous. 

Thomas John Carlson Jersey City

TM: You like working with square-shaped canvases. That’s unusual — I don’t see that very much. What does the square do for you? 

TJC: A square is very challenging to build a tight composition.  I have been square since 2010, but I do a lot of rectangles these days, too.

Many of my large surrealistic oil paintings are 38 inches by 38 inches.  My images of historical events — conversations inspired by AI prompts — also used the square.  

Thomas John Carlson Jersey City

TM: Besides the doctors, where have you turned for comfort and advice?

TJC:  The online community for hairy cell leukemia has been great. My wife, Liz, has been a cornerstone for me — she’s helped me both at home and in the hospital.  I don’t know what I would do without her love throughout this.  If it wasn’t for her, this would still likely be undiagnosed.

I’ve been doing my chemo as an out-patient at my oncologist’s office on JFK Boulevard.  A lot of my paintings are from that office, and there are many locals who go in weekly to receive vitamin shots and other treatments. It’s provided a comforting atmosphere in tough times.

Thomas John Carlson Jersey City

TM: You’re currently navigating the medical system. That’s a financial burden as well as a psychological one. Many artists don’t have great insurance. Are you covered?

TJC: The financial burden for me is the slowing of Jersey City Art School. I teach art classes in person, so when I was hit with this, I had to find some substitutes. Thankfully, former teachers Joe Velez and Kelly Sullivan helped in a big way. However, not having a clear day when I can return to the classroom certainly makes an impact. 

I do have insurance coverage, though. Things were difficult with the hospital at the start of this, but nobody has thrown me out yet.  

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...