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What is Expressive Arts and the Open Studio?

You can only learn about your creativity through your own experience of it.

~ Shaun Mc Niff

You might be wondering what an Expressive Arts (ExA) Open Studio Is? You might even be wondering what the expressive arts are! I am often asked these questions. It’s not a question with a simple answer. My understanding has been and continues to be a journey of learning.

I discovered expressive arts five years ago when I stumbled across an article written by Dr. Cathy Malchiodi on Zen Tangling. Soon afterward, I read her book Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body, and Imagination in the Healing Process. I was hooked on ExA. I have more than 18 hours of graduate credit in Wayne State University’s art therapy program and have had one foot on and one foot off the art therapy path for the past 25 years. I always felt something was missing. I knew the healing power of art, and I wanted to hone my skills and find my niche in the world. Still, art therapy – like special education also grounded in the medical model and the diagnosis of weakness and deficits – is not the world where I chose to live, play, and work.

As a social reconstructivist teacher, my teaching pedagogy is grounded in the assets model.

An asset-based approach is grounded in what students can do rather than what they cannot do. It is not concentrated on “fixing” areas of disease, disorder, or weakness. It is an embodiment of a growth mindset in instruction. As a teacher/facilitator, you take people’s strengths and build on them. I wanted to learn more about and ultimately use tools beyond diagnosis or disorder that lead to transformation and empowerment. I have always believed that creativity is the key to the growth mindset. In a growth mindset, people believe that they can develop their most basic abilities through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and resilience essential for great accomplishment.

Then, at the very beginning of the pandemic, I re-discovered expressive art. I needed to heal from the trauma of living in these unprecedented times. I wanted to create “right work for myself focused on healing and restoring a sense of wellbeing. So many of us are struggling in these difficult times, readjusting and recalculating ourselves in the aftermath of our shelter-at-home, social-shut-down response to the COVID pandemic. I woke up to the plain fact that I not only love to facilitate the process of creative exploration for other people (it has always brought me great joy) but that there is a great need in our world for this kind of work. I found my niche, and my feet are firmly planted on the path again. ExA is the tool, and facilitating others is the work!

Expressive arts therapy is an integrative, multimodal approach that utilizes various writing, music, visual arts, drama, dance, movement, breathwork, and guided visualizations to help people achieve personal growth. Both Expressive Arts Therapy and Art Therapy are creative therapies. Though there are many different ways to practice within each discipline, the main difference is that Expressive Arts (ExA) uses all art disciplines. In expressive arts therapy, you use multiple senses to explore your inner and outer world through the experience and creation of different art forms.

At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source. When you are an artist, you are a healer; a wordless trust of the same mystery is the foundation of your work and its integrity. – Rachael Naomi Remen, M.D.

Let me be clear here; I am not a therapist. I am a State of Michigan certified special education / fine arts teacher with an Ed Specialists degree in curriculum and instruction. I am working on international certification as a Registered Expressive Arts Consultant / Educator (REACE) through the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association. And in my own experience, I can testify that the expressive arts process is very therapeutic, but it is not therapy. The arts are a healing tool accessible to everyone of every age and every ability. Art is healing because it forces you to forge a connection between your mind and body. Unlike exercise, which works your body, or meditation, which clears your mind, art-making accesses both mind and body to promote healing and wellbeing.

So what is an Expressive Arts Open Studio? The open studio approach, coined by Dr. Pat Allen, is grounded in the central role of art and an open and non-moderated creative process. The facilitator is responsible for holding the space to allow individual expression in a group setting. My online open studio sessions are not non-moderated. Someday, I look to having a physical space, such as Pat Allen describes in her book Art Is a Spiritual Path: Engaging the Sacred through the Practice of Art and Writing. A space where participants can drop in, explore materials and feel free to create. The online open studio is a dedicated time each week where I hold space and encourage people to feel curious, explore, and create in community. Every Saturday, a small group of people gather together (on zoom), currently representing CA, MI, NC, and NY; this is the upside to virtual gatherings. They can happen from anywhere in the world.

The process of creating and expressing one’s self and shaping an artistic work can fuel physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. Art

  • helps resolve conflicts and problems,
  • develops interpersonal skills,
  • reduces stress and anxiety,
  • and increases self­ awareness.

In our ExA sessions, we explore themes related to self-care, mindfulness, community connection, and social justice using various materials and modalities. I use poetry, music, inspiring passages from books, lists of words, music, or other prompts to get us thinking in metaphor. These prompts encourage us to move away from our linear left-brain judging world to a liminal space where the work of dreaming, visioning, exploring, seeking, healing, and personal transformation happens.

I usually provide a short visualization guiding participants into relaxing and embodying our theme for the day – and then we are off to creating: painting, drawing, doodling, stitching, or modeling with clay or paper. Individuals each choose their process based on the materials at hand. Then in our own personal space and collectively on zoom, we create, at our own pace, a work of art in response to our experience. At the end of the session, we witness each other’s artwork without comment, judgment, or analysis. ExA does not interpret the art and add meaning like, you drew this, so it means this. The artist-participant can apply meaning to their work if they want, and I may (or might not) help them reframe their interpretation or ask questions that take it in a different direction. Sometimes the meaning arrives days later! The focus is on your experience and your unique response.

The Expressive Arts are for everyone.

We are all born with an innate human capacity to be creative. ExA Open Studio is NOT a traditional art class. It is about working with the process and following its threads through different art modalities such as visual art, movement, writing, music, poetry, or drama. Because it is about the process and being creative and expressing from it within, it is less about the product. A satisfying product is wonderful – and our work can be quite beautiful – but it is not the primary objective.

The engagement with self and materials becomes a passageway to the inner realm, where personal and collective wisdom and information are held. Once known, seen, heard, and recognized, this inner wisdom can be embraced, explored, and expressed. Working with image, symbol, and form deepens self-knowledge, and becomes one’s own source material. Cat Caracelo

For more information or to register for a session:

P.S. This is NOT about: Art or critique, comparison, pressure, being perfect at anything, rigid or high expectations, pressure to be anyone or anything other than the beautiful person you already are. It’s a time to relax, rediscover who you are, and explore some new tools for both a creative mind and a creative life.



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