By Erin Bank
When Julia Geller was 11 years old and growing up in the Soviet Union, she had to undergo a two-hour audition just to win a place in an art class. She knew that one day, when she realized her dream of opening her own art studio, it would be different.
“The only thing I need is for them to like to draw,” she said.
Geller has been drawing since the age of 4, beginning on the walls of her home. Instead of telling her no, her mother put out white paper so she always had a place to create her art. Geller helped her classmates and friends learn to draw, and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be a children’s art teacher, with her own studio and community. She attended art school and college to specifically learn how to teach art to children.
In 1991 Geller moved to San Francisco with her parents and 6-year-old son. She worked in office jobs for a while, then in 1999 her father (a prominent scientist) gave her money to open her first studio on Judah Street and 28th Avenue. Several years later, it moved to its current space at 2414 28th Avenue near Taraval, which has since housed the Young Artists Studio. It started slowly, with just a few students, but it didn’t take long for word of mouth to bring in enough students for several group lessons a week. She now has eight classes a week for children and one class for adults on Friday evenings.
The word “class” is a bit of a misnomer: they aren’t classes in the formal sense, of instruction, testing, and curriculum (though, according to Geller, they still have homework: drawing and doodling as much as they can). Instead, they take place in an inspiring space for students to explore their talent and passion.
During the first month of teaching, Geller will expose a new student to many different mediums – colored pencils, charcoal, acrylic paint, watercolor, and clay. Each child selects a reference picture from the collection of binders that Geller has accumulated over time. They watch Geller draw, then try for themselves.
“Once they see how all the objects are made of different shapes, and they can draw and be good, there’s so much joy,” she said.
Geller relies on creativity to keep students engaged and interested. Instead of teaching them to draw a circle with a shadow over and over again, she turns that circle into an orange or a scoop of ice cream — even mixing paint with vanilla oil to bring the ice cream to life. They have one-on-one time with Geller every lesson, and the mixed-age groups in each class also allow younger students to learn from older ones, in the same way Geller taught his classmates. class when she was younger.
The studio is bright and cheerful, with a large window overlooking the quiet street that displays a weekly rotation of artwork. Art covers almost every inch of the walls.
She keeps in touch with many of her former students, now in school or with a job. Most still draw and paint. When they send her their work, she hangs it among those of her current students. She points to one, a detailed (Japanese) manga-style heroine, and says that the man who drew this told her when he was 6 that he wanted to draw video games when he was older. “And now he does,” she says proudly, as if talking about her own son.
In fact, Geller uses the word “family” countless times when referring to her students.
If they are her family, then she is the matriarch, gently guiding her children and giving them confidence and fueling their passion for art. Geller’s personality imbues the space with warmth and energy, always expressing his pride in the work of his students.
Every day except Sunday, her children come to see her to learn about art. They also develop strong friendships with the other kids in their cohort, confide in Geller, gently fight over the stuffed animal-covered couch, and playfully hide when their parents come to pick them up.
“They don’t want to go home – even the big girls hide under the desk so they don’t have to leave.”
While every detail of the studio is designed with students in mind, it’s also a sanctuary for Geller. During the pandemic, she gave lessons on Zoom, and even though the studio was sad and empty without the energy of the children, it remained a source of hope for her to keep her going. Now, once again, Geller finds himself finding solace in the studio and its students, as war ravages his home country of Ukraine. Although her family is entirely in the United States, she still talks to friends every day in her hometown of Odessa and elsewhere in Ukraine, and experiences their horror with them as they flee their homes or choose to stay and to fight.
“I wear it here,” she said, patting her chest over her heart.
Young Artist Studio is located at 2414 28th Ave. For course information, call 415-706-1678.