by Kathleen Reynolds
Teacher Jessel Miller
“Making art is a place to feel peace; to create a balance in peoples’ lives,” says Jessel Miller, owner and operator of Jessel Gallery on Atlas Peak Road in Napa. “We’re happy to offer students three hours in what I call the “Zen Zone,” a floating, wonderful space of calm while they work on their art. We nurture our students.”
In 1984, Jessel Miller started the gallery in what once was the historic Hedgeside Whiskey Distillery and has expanded over the years to 7000 sq. ft. filled with vibrant art, jewelry, books, clothing and more.
Over 20 years ago, a chance meeting occurred at the gallery with Gayle Wilson, wife of then Governor of California Pete Wilson. Mrs. Wilson admired Jessel’s artwork and the space, eventually asking Jessel to teach her how to paint in watercolors.
“I had never taught a serious class in this medium, yet I had been painting for 30 years,” says Jessel. “I agreed to give it a try. We’re still friends to this day.”
Jessel says that teaching is an art; she honors teachers and is humbled to be called one.
“I wasn’t trained to teach; I was trained in techniques of art.”
She began teaching watercolor classes in the gallery. During the pandemic she transitioned into teaching acrylic classes.
Teacher Diane Pope
“For years I shared with my husband Jim that I wanted to paint,” says Diane. “We would be out somewhere, and I’d see something beautiful and say, “I sure wish I could paint that.” Then one day, Jim surprised me with watercolor supplies and told me about a class. That was 22 years ago, and I have been painting ever since. My next push of encouragement came from Jessel. I mentioned to her my dream of teaching one day and she said, ‘Let’s schedule a class now.’ That was five years ago.”
My goal is to teach watercolor techniques and to help students have fun and feel successful. Sometimes as a theme we might incorporate seasons, do color mixing or use only three colors. I’m happy to give guidelines as to how I might approach it.”
Jessel and Diane teach alternate days of the week. Watercolor classes with Diane in July are every other Thursday. Acrylics classes with Jessel are alternating Wednesdays and every Friday. Check the website for exact times and dates (jesselgallery.com/artclasses). For either class, the drop-in fee is $75, or $200 for four classes that can be used anytime.
“For the first class, we provide the material so the students can see what they need,” says Jessel. “I also sell most supplies, except paint. We will advise the students about the best places to purchase their supplies.”
Jessel explained that the class is not a “paint-by-numbers or paint and sip class.” The class is more about teaching techniques and learning new ways of expressing your feelings through art. Everyone goes home with a completed piece of art.
Jessel added, “In the summer, we offer a rooftop space and can accommodate up to 12 students. Working offsite, we can handle up to 50. We’ve taught groups like YouTube and Google executives as team-building exercises when they’re in Napa. Recently, we held a class for corporate CEO’s at Shadybrook Winery. We also offer private lessons for families and friends, making this a unique teaching experience.”
“People approach art differently,” says Jessel. “I’m happy when students are open to trying something new and I offer guidance when they need assistance.”
Diane and Jessel say that many times they’ve heard potential students share that when they have tried painting in the past, the instructor has told them they were doing it incorrectly. They may never try making art again.
“We want to take the fear out of the experience,” says Diane. “People don’t realize how words like ‘you’re doing it wrong’ can affect a person. I had one student who was very nervous before the class. She worked on a landscape during her lesson and when she finished the landscape she was overcome with emotion. Happy tears flowed. She was feeling so good and successful that it was a relief.”
“This is a safe space,” says Jessel. “Our students are encouraged throughout the process.”
Both art instructors are successful professional artists; so why do they teach?
“I enjoy it,” says Diane. “It feels good to help people; it’s my love language. When students are happy with their work, I’m happy.”
“It’s helping others,” says Jessel. “It’s a supporting community. From the students, I learn to see what they see. Each has an individual style, whether they know it or not. My teaching method is different than Diane’s. Diane remains in the classroom throughout the class. I go in and out of the classroom and want the students to jump into the middle of the pool. I’m the lifeguard to help, but I want them to splatter about and see who they are.”
Student comments bear this out. “Jessel encourages indulging in experimentation and embracing freedom, in a way that often causes me to arrive at outcomes I didn’t see coming,” says one student. Another writes, “We are mostly inspired by Jessel, who encourages and guides us to feel our painting intuitively.”
Jessel’s “W(h)ine Jar” is well-known by her students. Whenever they are critical of themselves, they put $1 in the jar. The money collected is used to provide wine for Jessel’s potluck lunches.
“We encourage people to get over their doubts and fear; there’s no negativity here,” says Jessel.