Current Staff

Ana Eloísa Soto-Canino

Director/Chief Instructor/Chief Safety Officer

Ana received her first drawing lesson at age 4, her first drawing kit at age 6, and began studio life at age 9. Through long-term engagements with studios and art schools in Puerto Rico, the USA, and Italy, she went on to become an award-winning, classically-trained visual artist, as well as a studio and field instructor and arts administrator. Ana directs all business, studio, curricular and pedagogical operations at the art and design teaching studio she founded on her kitchen table in 1998. Launched as The Creative Genius Workshop, it grew fast into the Academy of Art of Highland Park (AAHP) and the shingle went up on main street. Ana has taught nearly a thousand younger and older practitioners, in studio, in the field, and online.


At the AAHP, Ana and her fellow staff members teach the deep craft practice of over 30 media and numerous art forms. Her students routinely garner topmost awards in local, regional, and national competitions, and many have gone on to exhibit their works and realize many of their aspirations as artists, designers and makers. Ana’s teen portfolio students place in the nation’s top art colleges, schools of architecture, schools of science and engineering, and liberal arts programs. 

Ana and the AAHP staff have always offered a free studio program for young artists with special needs, and from households in crisis.

Arts Administration

Ana served as a guest presenter at Henry Street Settlement House, as arts programmer for the Capital Area Urban League, as volunteer member of the Arts Commissions of Highland Park, and as judge for various community-based arts events in Middlesex County, NJ. Through the AAHP, she has collaborated with many schools and community programs, and continues to mentor students engaged in independent studies who need to collaborate with a field expert. Ana has also taught studio practice in Puerto Rico, China, and Botswana. Ana runs a very safe art studio operation that, as of August 2023, has seen ZERO accidents to our thousands of visitors, students or staff during our two decades of operation. Ana holds a lifetime certification in hazards identification in general industry from the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (the “OSHA 30 Card”).

Other Credentials

Ana holds a BA degree from Princeton University in Psychology (1985), with a senior thesis on visual perception, and a transcript heavy with art history studies. She holds an MA degree in Urban Planning and Policy from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, The New School (1991), and incomplete PhD studies in science and tech policy and political theory, The New School. 

She is the recipient of assorted internships, volunteer and staff positions at the Whitney Museum of American Art; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; the 92 Street Y;  the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, and El Museo del Barrio. 

Ana served a whirlwind stint as a multi award-winning reporter, news analyst and investigative journalist in New Jersey (1986 Rookie of the Year, NJ Press Association). For the past two decades, Ana has written for the AAHP on inquiry, exploration, creativity and artistic practice. 

Likes, Dislikes & Loves

Ana is a vegetarian and an advocate for ocean conservation. She doesn’t like shower caps, umbrellas, or shoes. Because of her ethics and aesthetics, she shuns social media, though that is changing now that the studio is also online. She loves sport flying in small aircraft, as well as boating, swimming, fishing, dance, and adventure travel around the world. She is a serious collector of genuine antique maps of the Caribbean. She also collects (lots of) books, genuine poster art, and rocks, minerals, fossils and gems. 

In the Master Bedroom (2017). Fabric cuts on paper; 18 in. x 24 in. (46 cm x 61 cm).

Ink (2010). Ink and white gouache on paper; 40 in. x 60 in. (101.6 cm x 152.4 cm)

Self-portrait at Princeton (1983). Pastel on paper; 24. in x 35 in. (60.96 cm x 88.9 cm)

The Warrior Calls Forth Her Horses (work-in-progress). Watercolors, ink, and assorted papers; Ana at work on a 22-foot scroll featuring 11 horses.

Vanitas of the White Hunter (2013, detail). Oil on canvas; 15 in. x 30 in. (38.1 cm x 76.2 cm)

The Warrior Calls Forth Her Horses (work-in-progress).

Aya Beatles

Project Supervisor and Student Mentor

Hello Folks! I’m Aya Beatles. I am a multimedia illustrator and character designer, with an Art Education degree from Georgia State University. I began teaching when I was 18, having received the opportunity to be a swim instructor during my lifeguard career. Teaching children to swim introduced me to my passion and love for teaching. I have always been moved by learners’ ability to overcome obstacles in order to create or understand something new. Being a student who struggled with grammar and mathematics, I did not allow these struggles to deter me from excelling in my educational development. Multiple teachers inside and outside of my academic environment offered me their support, and I prevailed.

My passion for teaching came later in life, but my passion for art began at a young age, and has determined the course of my life. Regardless of media used, I always try to find a way to connect with my art students in a creative and fun way. I am a big fan of cartoons and comic books, and find that these art forms are a driving force when connecting with my students in the classroom or studio, regardless of age. ‘Cause who does not love cartoons!? 

This connection does grant me the opportunity to communicate with students in a variety of ways. I love guiding them through their creative methods and broadening their artistic minds, in an open and understanding, educational environment. I intend to make every lesson be filled with creativity, allowing young artists to develop fully, with my artistic guidance encouraging them along the way. Can’t wait to see where your creativity leads us! That’s All Folks!

Jill Marie Caporlingua

Project Supervisor and Student Mentor

Jill Marie Caporlingua, affectionately nicknamed around the studio as “Jelly”, was born into generations of artists and artisans, not with a silver spoon, but with pencil and paintbrush in hand. She jokes that she became a professional artist at age three, when a stack of her paintings sold out at a garage sale on her block in 10 minutes flat. 

Today, Jelly’s paintings are held in private collections around the globe. She’s exhibited and won awards at a long list of venues, such as Luhring Augustine Gallery (NY, NY), The Paterson Museum, Gallery U (Red Bank, NJ), and Emerge Gallery of Saugerties (NY). 

By the time Jelly moved to Highland Park from Paterson, NJ (1998,) she had already lived as a working musician, and had completed a Bachelor of Arts at William Paterson University (1994). She switched tracks to Philosophy, and began graduate work at the New School for Social Research. She then quickly realized that her true love had always been drawing and painting, so she went back to school for Fine Arts at Middlesex County College (NJ).

Throughout college, Jelly worked as an assistant in the Art and Music Therapy Department of Children’s House, a community for residents with Down’s Syndrome and autism. In 1999, she also completed a 500-hour course to become a certified Yoga and Meditation Instructor in 1999. She then taught at many learning centers, including Solomon Schechter School (East Brunswick), the Soma Yoga Center and the Reformed Church of Highland Park. She then joined the Academy of Art of Highland Park (AAHP) as its first hired studio instructor. 

Jelly met Ana, AAHP Director and Chief Instructor, in 2002. A lunch at a local diner ended with an agreement that Jelly would train with Ana as her apprentice, to teach foundational studio practice to both youngsters and adult students. Jelly then joined the staff at the AAHP, and the rest is history! She and Ana even toured Puerto Rico, studying the beautiful artwork, museums, and every corner of the island, from beautiful Old San Juan, to the rainforest, to the awe-inspiring limestone cliffs at Cabo Rojo. 

Surviving both breast cancer and lupus has led Jelly to a change in lifestyle, and a hiatus from the AAHP, although she always considered the studio her second home. She re-calibrated and founded Gallerychaos Studio to cultivate her own painting style, which makes reference to scientific theories and microscopic views of the universe, and to also accept commissions for her original works. Jill also began a private teaching practice, combining her training in philosophy, meditation, and a global view of the world’s many spiritual practices (particularly Buddhist traditions and arts) to bring about health, healing, and relaxation. Meanwhile, Jelly also kept to her classical roots and the foundational, fun approach the Academy takes to higher learning!

Jelly agrees wholeheartedly with the studio mantra attributed to Maestro Michelangelo Buonarroti: “Ancora Imparo” (I am still learning). This is something that the great master said when he was 87 years old and working on St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Jelly also loves composing and playing improvisational piano pieces, reading, and cooking Italian specialties (while speaking Italian). She enjoys making her friends and family laugh with her performance art online as the “Joisey’ persona, Dawn Macaroni.

To date, Jelly has sold over 3,250 tiny “cell” paintings through,  This is a group that repurposes old cigarette machines to dispense small, original artworks at hundreds of locations across the USA, including the Smithsonian Institute (Washington DC) and The Whitney Museum (NY, NY).

Zina Orow

Project Supervisor and Student Mentor

Zina is an interior architect whose love for art, architecture, and design started early with a simple conversation with her father, when he asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Zina responded, “I want to be an artist”. Her father then introduced her to architecture and design. He  told her that any successful architect must also be a wonderful artist. From then on, Zina started working hard to accomplish her dream. That dream became a reality in 2004, when she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Interior Architecture from Lawrence Technological University, state of Michigan. After graduating, Zina worked in the field of architecture and interior design for 10 years. 

In addition to her architecture experience, Zina also worked as a teacher and as an academic university advisor for four years. She is mother to two beautiful girls who also happen to love art. When Zina is not busy, she enjoys redecorating her house by moving the furniture around and recreating the décor. She also loves singing, dancing, cooking, and being with family and friends. Zina believes that every creative artist has scattered pieces of art puzzles in their heads, and that once they figure out how all the pieces come together, a phenomenal work of art manifests.

Please see samples of Zina’s interior design models at

Thomas Valenti

Project Supervisor and Student Mentor

Thomas “Tommy” Valenti, born 1998 in New Brunswick, NJ, is an artist who spans many media and art forms, including woodworking, footwear, graphic design, illustration, and painting.

Tommy began his studio training at the Academy of Art of Highland Park (AAHP) in 2011 when he was just 12 years old. He went on to coach at the AAHP in 2013 until he graduated high school in 2016. By partaking in the AAHP’s Portfolio Prep Program (P3.0) and through many years committed to the fine arts, and design, he was able to secure admittance to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

After his first year at RISD, Tommy became fascinated with carpentry, leading him to earn a BFA in Furniture Design in 2020. He moved to Barcelona, Spain, in 2022 to earn an MA in Sustainable Fashion Technology at the European Institute of Design.

While abroad, he was selected to work with a local company to design recyclable 3D-printed footwear; however, wishing to return to his roots, Tommy returned to the US in 2023 to pursue fine art full-time.

Since the beginning of 2023, Tommy’s work has received awards and selection in curated gallery shows.

Outside of the studio, Tommy loves to relax with video games, play board games with friends, and crochet.

Sanjana Vellanki

Project Supervisor and Student Mentor

Sanjana Vellanki, has been a member of the AAHP for almost six years, participating in both the foundations of studio program for children and the teen studio. Sanjana offered to volunteer at the AAHP during the pandemic crisis. Upon becoming a freshman in college, studying Data Science and Statistics, Sanjana joined the AAHP online staff, initially working with Assistant Director Aaron S. Balavram as a teaching assistant (OSM) for Da Vinci’s Toolbox—the AAHP online studio program for children. Sanjana then became the Assistant Staff Manager working with Ana and the teen studio.

Besides her own practice as artist/designer, Sanjana loves to travel and explore her surroundings. She’s an avid hiker and scrapbooker, and keeps a track of all her adventures in the form of small collectibles, plane/train tickets, receipts, and of course, her Polaroids. . Sanjana loves to travel, hike, and explore new cities. Her latest trip was to Tanzania, Africa, where she hiked to the summit of  Mount Kilimanjaro and also visited the Serengeti. 

In college, Sanjana is currently pursuing a Computer Science major, specializing in Data Science, with a minor in Statistics. Sanjana hopes to serve as a data scientist/engineer, yet art will always hold a significant place in her heart; during her free time, she still practices what she has learned in studio.

Sanjana first met the AAHP staff when she came to the studio 8 years ago as a student, and graduated from the P3O program in 2021. After the aftermath of COVID-19, Sanjana first joined the Academy in August 2021 when it initially went online. She started work as an Online Safety Monitor with Aaron, and now works with Ana as an Adult Coach.

Honoring Former Staff

Alina Gorbunova

Junior Instructor/Junior Studio and Staff Manager

Alina Gorbunova has lived almost her whole life in New Jersey – with the exception of one year spent in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. She started taking lessons at the Academy of Art of Highland Park when she was in fourth grade and started volunteering when she was 12. After working her way up the coach rank all the way to Honorary Captain (a rank made just for her) she was promoted to Junior Instructor, as well as Junior Studio and Staff Manager. 

Outside of studio, Alina loves to travel. She has been all over from Moscow, Russia to Vancouver, Canada to Alaska to Florence, Italy (the home of many great Renaissance masters including Leonardo da Vinci). On all her travels she makes sure to bring a sketch book along.  

Alina is currently studying Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rutgers University along with a minor in computer science, business administration, and art history. She is a member of the Engineering Honors Academy and an active part of research being done in the Industrial and Systems Engineering department. 

Amber Vizthum

Junior Staff Manager-in-Training

Amber, 20, of Metuchen, is a visual artist and musician. She has always had a deep love for the arts and has been practicing from a young age. She enjoys working with a variety of art forms—-from illustration, to claymation, to photography. She started taking classes at AAHP in early 2017. She was quickly hired to assist with studio management. She has since risen through the ranks to serve as student coach, and as Manager of the Skin & Bones Studio. Amber is now also Junior Staff Manager-in-Training as the latest member of the Senior Staff. Her fav food is….the pomegranate!

Melissa Underwood-Lisbao

Project Supervisor and Student Mentor

Melissa began taking lessons at the Academy of Art of Highland Park (AAHP) at the age of eight, and is now honored to be part of its knowledgeable, and supportive teaching staff. 

Melissa is a classically trained violinist (Rutgers University), a writer, and a seamstress, and is especially interested in working with students interested in fashion/apparel design. She has worked across the northeast with children inside and outside the classroom for nearly 10 years as a swim teacher, violin teacher, camp counselor, and as art studio project supervisor with the AAHP.    

In addition to her job at the AAHP as a Project Supervisor/Student Mentor, Melissa works at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia (PA), serving as the Youth and Visitor Education intern, where she runs classes and events that deepen children’s relationship to nature. At the AAHP,  as elsewhere, Melissa delights in mentoring each young person’s creative growth; she teaches with the patience and wisdom that her own creative practices have taught her. 

Michael Gorbunov

Junior Tech/ Junior Coach

When young, Michael Gorbunov tagged along with his sister – Alina Gorbunova – to art lessons at the AAHP. He saw a sprawling studio, and wanting to be a part of it soon joined himself. As an art student, Michael went through drawing and shifted into sculpture. Around this time, only in fifth grade, he found a side interest of computer graphics and began learning Blender – a software for 3D art. This set him up to tie in technical skills with artistic practice. Developing himself as a strong artist and a technically literate person, Michael found himself in position to become the studio’s only (to date) simultaneous tech and coach.

Today, Michael uses his free-time working on personal projects. Last year he spent over 50 hours working on board games – making the assets and heading a group of friends. This summer he has been programming. While not consistently creating art at home anymore, he does occasionally still dabble in the arts. His last painting session was a set of 3 watercolor paintings of his beloved dog Charlie, which he gave as presents to his family for Christmas.

The Work Crew
The Work Crew is the behind-the-scenes team that keeps the studio in working order. They come in on Friday when the studio is closed and toil like fairytale elves. Yet instead of working to the tinkling of silver bells, they play everything from old Beatles vinyl, to the newest indie hits. They do everything from vacuuming, cleaning, scrubbing, brush repair, furniture assembly and art supply shopping to washing all the rags the studio rag monster consumes. Everyone works together to keep this ship afloat. Without the spirited and almost heroic toil of our daring work crew team we wouldn’t have clean brushes, sharp pencils, or neatly organized works of art.
In loving memory of Jauria

Official Studio Mascot


Live model and Officer-in-Charge-of-Morale. Yes, he made us laugh! His tail was the finest brush in the house. He was wickedly smart, the smartest dog you’ll ever meet. Jau-Jau was happy to stay locked in his kennel at student’s request.

Affiliated Artists

Aaron Balavram

Former Assistant Director/Senior Instructor/Studio and Staff Manager

Aaron Balavram was born in Sayreville, New Jersey, but grew up in the great town of Highland Park, where he has spent most of his life. Having always had an adoration for the arts and sciences, he found a second home at the Academy of Art of Highland Park, where he learned to explore the craft of fine art as a science. Aaron began his training at the Academy at the age of fourteen, and by the following year, he was eager to expand his knowledge by aiding in the teaching of his peers, which he then continued to do for over 17 years. He became a senior instructor, as well as the head of the sculpture department and “The Sky’s the Limit” program for Artists with special needs.

Aaron had also branched out to serve the community with other art programs, such as “Bridges”, an Edison Township program for “at risk” youths, and is also heading the Veterans Housing Project donor-wall mural through the Highland Park Reform Church. He has also served as an after-school art teacher at Montesory Netivot, as well as the middle school and high school art teacher for the Pre-Collegiate Learning Center in East Brunswick.

Aaron had also worked with Ana on developing the Aii Field Studio, organizing field trips and outings for all you wonderful artists that just can’t wait to get outside! He’s always been somewhat of an outdoorsman himself, having been going camping and hiking with his friends and family for longer than he can remember.

Just know that when you give him a smile, you’re making his day!