Ana Soto-Canino

Director/Chief Instructor

Academy founder and Director, Ana hails from Puerto Rico, where you might find her illustrating native and endangered plants in the field. Ana studied in classical ateliers for over 20 years in PR, the USA, and Europe. She has also studied painting in China, Japan and Tibet. An exhibiting and award-winning artist, Ana earned her BSc from Princeton University in Psychology, with a concentration in Visual Perception, and four years in Art History. She has a Masters in Urban Planning and Policy, and has worked in several museums and as award winning journalist. As art instructor, she teaches the technical craft traditions (long-standing ideals, theories, techniques and methods) of over 20 different media in both Western and Asian traditions. Some of her favorite things include saltwater, dogs, sailing, martial arts and dance, as well as airplanes and backyard astronomy. Ana has served on various Highland Park volunteer committees, and as art judge in neighboring communities. She sponsors a need-based scholarship at the Academy for young artists.

Detailed Credentials


Aaron Balavram

Senior Instructor/Studio Administrator

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 has continued to do for the past eight years.  He is now 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 has 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 has also been working 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. 

Here at the Academy, you may also know Aaron as the one who takes your calls and emails, and is always happy to do so.  He gets the privilege of greeting you all both on the phone and at the door, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.  Just know that when you give him a smile, you’re making his day!


David Segal

Systems Administrator (Tech Guru and Troubleshooter Extraordinaire)

A high school student with a gift for the web, David is the systems administrator in the studio. He also constructed the websites for the Academy of Art of Highland Park (AAHP), and our international art travel program ArtVentures International, Ink. (Aii). David is always on call for any tech related issues at the studio. You can find him in the back room of the studio, working on his computer, or making popcorn in the kitchen. To contact David directly regarding an inquiry about this website, please email


Savina Kotorov


Savina was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, but came to New Jersey from Madrid, Spain, where she lived and worked for almost 10 years. She has a passion for languages. She holds a degree in Spanish Philology from Sofia University and speaks 5 languages. Her work as a financial officer of a subsidiary of a multinational Japanese company (FANUC LTD), led her to discover the power of numbers and enter accounting. She also has a lifelong interest in fashion, art and design. This interest culminated in a degree in Fashion Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), as well as an international design competition award, and a stint as a designer/owner of a line of accessories and clothes. Now she combines her full-time job as a mother and a family COO while expanding her interest in cooking and nutrition. Last but not least, she serves as accountant at the Academy.


Oria Lak

Financial Advisor

Oria has practiced accounting for more than 25 years as Controller and Accountant for numerous business enterprises. She is a certified QuickBooks ProAdvisor and over the years she has offered classroom instruction or customized individual training on QuickBooks in her private practice. She is active in a number of professional organizations including the National Society of Accountants, NJAWBO, and Association of the Bar of the City of New York. She is associated with SCORE, a resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and has been a business counselor at its Princeton Chapter since 2007. She is an Advisory Board member of Tech-Train School of Central New Jersey. She provides independent financial analysis in addition to tax and accounting services. She is an authorized IRS e-fileProvider.


Yu Qing Zhou

Brush Surgeon/Junior Studio Manager/Coach to Special Needs Artists
Yu Qing, a 15-year old HPHS student, is a trained and practiced in the healing arts that concern specialized tools and instruments. As our Brush Surgeon, she is in charge of the studio’s Brush Hospital & Rehab Center, where she presides over the repair, conditioning, and maintenance of the professional instruments our students use day in and day out. These include everything from a 200-piece collection of professional brushes to technical pens to lighting solutions, and much more. Yu Qing is also the one-woman army in charge of mid-week studio maintenance, Receiving, and dog handling. Last but not least, Yu Qing is one of three excellent members of the Coaching Team who serve Special Needs artists at the drawing board or easel. A rather skinny foodie, she notes “I like lentils, but I can eat the whole world.”  She’s also a kickboxer.


The 2013-2014 Work Crew

The Work Crew is he 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. The work crew is not currently accepting new applicants. The Work Crew includes manager Aaron Balavram, and crew members Patrick L., Tommy V., Lara P.-C., Carolyn H., and Yu Qing Z.,


Jauria (how-REE-ah), aka "Jau Jau" or "Howie"

Official Studio Mascot

Live model and Officer-in-Charge-of-Morale. Yes, he'll make you laugh! His tail is the finest brush in the house. He's wickedly smart, the smartest dog you'll ever meet. Jau-Jau is happy to stay locked in his kennel at student's request. (Also, please see Allergy Alert Here).