Cotati art studio offers space to explore emotions, creativity

A bright and cheery workspace greets visitors to Unfold Your Creative Spirit Studio, a Cotati art studio dedicated to finding the inner artist in even the most self-doubting students.

When fine artist and educator Susie Stonefield Miller opened the colorful studio five years ago in a spacious room at her synagogue, the site of the former Cotati Cabaret, she was hoping to create community through visual arts.

Her popular art journaling classes achieve something more. The sessions are transformative, even healing, said Miller. Rather than create art for sale, display or

critique, students work in sketchbooks intended just for themselves. They follow a few basic guidelines and prompts from Miller that encourage self-expression.

“The point is the journey,” said Miller, 56. “Art journaling is the perfect metaphor for life.”

She discovered the process during a difficult time in her life, when she was seeking an addition to traditional therapy to relieve stress and address her worries.

“I wanted some other way to talk about my story. I used (art journaling) as my language, and I couldn’t stop. It’s really powerful,” she said. “There was so much rooting around under the surface that I needed to get out.”

For some students, sketchbooks become like diaries filled with deeply personal thoughts and experiences. Rather than scribe graph after graph of text, sometimes a single word, or just a few, meld with artwork to express an emotion. Miller has seen art journals revealing everything from happiness, joy and acceptance to sorrow, turmoil and anger. She keeps boxes of Kleenex out for her students, for moments when feelings stir and tears flow.

Miller isn’t a therapist and art journaling isn’t art therapy, she emphasizes, but it is therapeutic. “It’s like a meditative process. You get in touch with your feelings and energy and let that guide you. It’s so cathartic.”

She introduces basic “ingredients” for students to use: color, texture, collage, imagery, marks, lines, patterns and words.

“It’s up to you to create the recipe,” she said. “All of it is fine, it’s all OK. You don’t even have to finish anything. It’s not an assignment.”

Students, even those who insist they aren’t creative, begin to see there’s an artist emerging. Miller’s studio is filled with an array of art materials, from paints, markers, spray inks and colored pencils to stencils, rubber stamps, ink pads and sticker lettering. A vintage manual typewriter and an assortment of papers also are available to help unfold thoughts.

“It’s a playground of creativity,” Miller said.

A trio of paintings with inspiring messages dominates a wall. “Orville Wright didn’t have a pilot’s license,” reads one. “There is beauty in being a beginning,” states another.

Miller said she is regularly inspired by her students, and is grateful for the opportunity to provide a space for self-expression, personal storytelling and artistic exploration.

While some of her art journaling sessions are open-ended, she provides themes for others. She has had students explore grief, transformations and body image, among other topics.

“I love to go deep,” she said.

“I’m the opposite of the ‘Paint and Sip,’” where adults gather to socialize over wine or cocktails while following instructions to all paint the same image, Miller said. “I teach people to stay in their hearts.”

Sometimes there are surprises.

Sheridan Gold attends art journaling sessions regularly, but primarily to develop her artistic skills. She lives in west Petaluma, near the Cotati border, and is a musician.

“I don’t consider myself an artist at all,” said Gold, who credits Miller with providing a welcoming atmosphere to explore art. “She made it safe. Susie is a safe person to explore with.”

Gold, 63, was caught off guard during a session when she began working through a recent nightmare that was especially disturbing.

“I didn’t have to hold onto it,” she said. “It was just a way to get it out for me.”

Many who pursue art journaling are not artists. Some even tell Miller they aren’t remotely artistic. Miller appreciates the honesty, but has a different viewpoint.

“Everyone is creative,” she said. “We have to feed that part of our souls. If we don’t, we will suffer from that.” Her job “is about showing people how to tap into their own creative spirit.”

Transformations and a sense of healing are possible through artistic self-exploration and self-acceptance, Miller said, especially when using “your verbal and non-verbal brain together.” Used in tandem, “It opens the door to awareness.”

For those who choose to share their artwork and personal stories - totally optional - there is an added benefit in inspiring and encouraging others. Miller keeps her classes small, with not more than 10 people gathered together, to create a safe, intimate, nonjudgmental circle.

She is a certified person-centered expressive arts facilitator and earned an undergraduate degree in fine arts from UCLA and a teaching credential with an art specialization from University of California, Berkeley. Miller worked as a teacher and curriculum designer and has operated several small businesses. A Sebastopol resident, she also home-schooled her sons, Harry, 25; Ben, 21; and Toby, 18.

Unfold Your Creative Spirit Studio blends her talents and experiences in a highly rewarding entrepreneurship for Miller. She loves seeing transformations and creating community. Although her classes originally were open to just women, she now welcomes men and has done workshops for youth.

In addition to art journaling, Miller leads workshops in art techniques and specific content, which she calls Playshops. Upcoming topics include “Backgrounds Bonanza,” “Stencil Studies” and “Autumnal Equinox Dreamboards.”

She has hosted creative New Year’s Eve retreats and offers private parties and corporate team-building events. She also provides online courses, including “Start Art Journaling” that covers basic instruction and core techniques.

Miller’s approach is nurturing and community-building, something she treasures.

“My goal is not to make you an artist,” she said. “My goal is transformation. This work is contemplative and focused on the journey, and not the outcome. It’s surprising and very satisfying.

“It fills my heart to know I’m helping someone to do that,” she said.

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