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.”