The realistic-looking cobblestones painted on the sidewalk lead into the center of the Nicollet Avenue storefront, where visitors confront walls adorned with super-sized flowers and dragonflies, a wind-blown wheat field, Humpty Dumpty wielding a painter's brush and a beaming Mr. Sun looking on approvingly.

The garden theme is the work of veteran artist Jane Elias, 47. It's also her workplace, the site of an uncommon business she calls the Simply Jane Open Artist Studio.

The business: professional art tutoring offered to "non-artists, timid artists and budding artists," as Elias puts it.

Her clientele ranges from toddlers to retirees, and the studio has become a popular gathering place for kids' birthday parties, scout and church-group outings, even bridal showers. Young people come on dates, older couples for a night out, and friends gather to mix art with conversation and coffee.

All of which added up to revenues of $65,000 in 2008, Elias' first full year in business. Not an instant fortune, mind you, but "enough to pay the rent and my artists," she said.

The aim of the Simply Jane studio, particularly for the younger participants, is not necessarily to teach people how to draw, although there are classes for that. Rather, Elias' focus is on how to mix colors to add shading and dimension that "make a painting pop."

"People find a blank canvas daunting," she said.

Thus, the beginners and younger participants, supplied with professional brushes and paints, fill in the color on images Elias has pre-drawn on canvases, picture frames, wooden plates, trivets and place mats, not to mention custom-built stools shaped like turtles.

The cost: $5 for individuals and $10 for groups up to four people, plus supplies that range from $4 to $18 for a canvas, $10 for picture frames, $15 to $45 for wooden plates and bowls and up to $75 for a stool.

To hear Lora Pollari-Welbes of Arlington, Va., tell it, it's well worth the price: Besides visiting cousins and grandparents, she said, the Simply Jane studio is "my daughter's most requested thing to do when we are in Minneapolis."

The studio also offers classes on drawing for adults and drawing comic books for kids, which cost $100 for a five-week run. Then there are nine-week summer camps for kids ages 6 to 12, offering classes ranging from drawing and working with clay to jewelry-making and mosaic tile creations. The cost: $100 for half-days, $200 for full days.

A 1986 graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she was an illustrator for the Minnesota Daily, Elias began painting murals, creating logos and building whimsical "art furniture" -- chairs shaped like cats, dogs or rabbits and brightly colored beds and cribs adorned with images of animals.

Her first break came in 1988 because of an abscessed tooth: Unable to pay for the root canal, she agreed to paint a mural in the dental clinic's play area. That led to jobs at two other clinics, then several hospitals, retail shops and residences.

But the serendipity that launched her career came in 1990, when some of her furniture art at an International Market Square showroom was spotted by a designer for a national real estate developer whose holdings include senior living centers, nursing homes and pediatric care facilities.

She was hired to design furniture for company pediatric centers, which led to mural projects at other facilities. Before long she was flying all over the country for the company.

She tried the working mom bit after her first child was born in 1998, but the travel made it hard: "It broke my heart to leave," she said. She became a full-time mother after her second child was born in 2000.

But she kept her hand in as a volunteer, creating murals and logos for charitable groups and helping schools and churches raise funds with "Painting With Jane Parties" and pre-drawn canvases that youngsters could fill with color and sell for class projects.

Thus, the volunteer projects laid the groundwork for the business, which she started with a $10,000 loan for furnishings and materials.

The ensuing revenue stream has not been spectacular, but it's not bad, considering that Elias did no advertising or promotion, relying instead on her website and word-of-mouth.

The word-of-mouth is rich with warmth and plaudits, however: Eliot Howard, pastor of Linden Hills United Church of Christ, for example, talks of Elias's "considerable skill as an artist, teacher, collaborator and civic leader," calling her "a gift to our whole community."

Said Lotem Levy of Edina, whose toddler is a frequent studio visitor: "I truly think it is one of Minneapolis' greatest treasures."

Perhaps the most heartening praise, however, came from Mary Anne Welch of Minneapolis, who said painting has lured her 9-year-old son away from video games: "When he gets home, he wants to draw!"

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 •