By Erin Bank
When Julia Geller was 11 years old and growing up in the Soviet Union, she had to endure a two-hour audition just to earn a place in an art class. She knew that one day, when she achieved her dream of opening an art studio of her own, it would be different.
“The only thing I need, is that they love to draw,” she said.
Geller has been drawing since age 4, starting on the walls of her house. Instead of telling her no, her mother put up white paper so she would always have a place to create her art. Geller helped classmates and friends learn how to draw, and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be an art teacher for children, with her own studio and community. She attended art school and college to learn specifically how to teach art to children.
In 1991, Geller moved to San Francisco with her parents and 6-year-old son. She held desk jobs for a while, and then in 1999, her father (an eminent scientist) gave her money to open her first studio on Judah Street and 28th Avenue. Several years later, she moved to her current space at 2414 28th Ave., near Taraval, which has been the home of Young Artists Studio ever since. She started out slowly, with just a few students, but it did not take long for word of mouth to bring enough students for several group classes a week. She now has eight classes per week for children, and one adult class on Friday nights.
The word “class” is a bit of a misnomer: these are not classes in a formal sense, of instruction and tests and curriculum (although, Geller said, they still have homework: sketching and doodling as much as they can). Instead, they are held in an inspiring space for the students to explore their talent and passion.
In the first month of instruction, Geller will expose a new student to many different media – colored pencils, charcoal, acrylic paint, watercolor and clay. Each child selects a reference picture from the collection of binders Geller has amassed over time. They watch Geller sketch, and then try on their own.
“Once they see how all objects are made of different shapes, and they can draw and be good, there is so much joy,” she said.
Geller relies on creativity to keep the students engaged and interested. Instead of teaching them how to draw a circle with a shadow, over and over, 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 during every lesson, and the mixed age groups in each class also allow younger students to learn from older ones, much in the same way Geller taught her school classmates when she was younger.
The studio is bright and cheery, with a large window onto the quiet side street that displays a weekly rotation of artwork. Art covers nearly every inch of the walls.
She keeps in touch with many of her old students, now off to school or with jobs. Most are still drawing and painting. When they send her their work, she hangs them among those of her current students. She points to one, a detailed manga-style (Japanese) heroine, and says the man who drew that had told her when he was 6 that he wanted to draw video games when he was older. “And now, he’s doing it,” she said proudly, as if talking about her own son.
In fact, Geller uses the word “family” countless times when talking about 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 infuses the space with warmth and energy, always expressing her pride in her students’ work.
Every day but Sunday, her children come to her to learn about art. They also develop strong friendships with the other kids in their cohort, confide in Geller, gently fight over the sofa covered in plush toys 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.”
Though every detail of the studio is designed with the students in mind, it is also a sanctuary for Geller. During the pandemic, she taught classes over Zoom, and although the studio was sad and empty without the energy of the children, it remained a source of hope for her to help her keep going. Now, again, Geller finds herself finding solace in the studio and her students, as war ravages her home country of Ukraine. Although her family is all in the United States, she still talks to friends in her hometown of Odessa and elsewhere in Ukraine every day, and lives their horror with them as they flee their homes, or choose to stay and fight.
“I carry it here,” she said, patting her chest over her heart.
Young Artist Studio is located at 2414 28th Ave. For more information about classes, call 415-706-1678.