Syer, 81, of Davis, began learning to draw in online classes with art teacher Caroline Mustard as a COVID-era distraction, an antidote to the isolation and loneliness of the lockdowns.
"It was the blessing of that whole time for me," Syer said. "It kept me sane, to have something wonderful to look forward to."
She's stayed active in drawing classes from the Atherton-based nonprofit ever since, attending a mix of online classes and in-person sketch walks.
The Joy of Drawing is run by Caroline Mustard and Katy Lea, two women who grew up and attended art school in Britain. They are now committed to spreading their love of art through online classes and in-person events around the Peninsula.
For Mustard, it comes as no surprise that students find community and purpose in art classes.
"Drawing is more than just a technical skill," she said. "It's a way to connect, to be in the moment, and it's very meditative."
She and her cofounder Lea said their classes are meant to be accessible to anyone, regardless of experience.
"It doesn't matter who you are," Mustard said. "Our method of teaching, we say, no pressure, no judgment — just joy."
Mustard has been teaching online art classes for 10 years, showing her students how to use both art apps on iPads and how to draw with conventional paper and pencils. She and Lea started The Joy of Drawing together in 2018.
Mustard said that many of her students still opt for online classes even as pandemic restrictions have waned: Zoom enables her to show students techniques up close, even more so than in a conventional art studio.
Students from across the United States, as well as several other countries, participate in the online classes. Each month, Mustard and Lea pick a theme for a free drawing workshop hosted on Zoom: abstract drawing one month, portraits another.
Lea said that she and Mustard have drawn on their own art school training to develop their teaching philosophy.
"We don't assume anything," Lea said, describing how classes start with the fundamentals of how to properly hold a pencil.
Lea said part of The Joy of Drawing's mission is to help students feel capable of drawing outside of class and trying unfamiliar subjects and techniques for their art.
"If you can keep up that practice and draw everything, and look and see and get that excitement about having five minutes at a train station, you can just pick up your pencil and start drawing," she said.
Syer said she's proud of the new things she has tried in the classes.
"Before, I never thought I could draw a person, or I never thought I could draw a horse," she said. "I mean, I would have said, 'I don't do that.' But then she (Mustard) gets you started and pretty soon you think, 'I can do that.'"
Sketch walks, one of The Joy of Drawing's in-person offerings, give students a chance to practice sketching in everyday life. They meet at locations around the Bay Area, like a local park or Stanford's art museum, and receive a drawing project to complete during the excursion. Attendees spend the morning sketching, then meet up afterward to share their work and get to know each other over lunch.
Syer said she loves going on the group's sketch walks. "It makes you so happy you can't believe it," she said.
The Joy of Drawing is now evolving to offer more in-person opportunities for local art enthusiasts: Mustard and Lea recently made their organization a nonprofit, so that people who are interested in drawing but might not be able to afford classes can take part.
The pair said they intend to focus on local libraries for new partnerships. They recently hosted a free Valentine's Day art workshop at the Atherton Library, and they hope to branch out into Palo Alto and East Palo Alto libraries as well, as well as other towns around the Peninsula.
Local libraries have also begun stocking Mustard and Lea's book, "The Joy of Drawing: A Beginner's Manual," which they wrote together during the pandemic. The book contains QR codes for readers to scan, so that they can follow along and try a variety of sketching exercises as they go. There's a video that goes with each chapter, too.
As for the group classes, Lea said it's "magical" to see the students growing in confidence and encouraging each other.
"Community is a huge part," she said. "Because everyone encourages each other and it's just so lovely and magical — it really is."
"We love what we do," Mustard said.
Syer, for one, said she'll remain a loyal student in Mustard's classes.
"As long as she teaches classes," she said, "I'll be taking them."
For more information, visit thejoyofdrawing.org.