Exploring the field of art therapy through a series of interviews with practitioners in the Bay Area and beyond has become a new focus for me. Last month I met with Patricia Rojas-Zambrano after learning about her art journaling workshops through a chance meeting with a regular attendee. I caught her in the middle of an art journaling exchange project between a group of immigrants and refugees from several Latin American countries, and a group of young Maya Kakchiquel women living in the Guatemalan Highlands.

The field of Creative Arts Therapy makes a distinction between expressive arts therapy and traditional art therapy. In expressive arts therapy, Patricia Rojas-Zambrano explains, the visual arts, drama, storytelling, poetry, music and movement are integrated. The term “intermodal” is used when these multiple art forms are combined in a therapeutic setting.

According to the particular needs of the group or client, the emphasis changes with the end being to stimulate the imagination, nurture growth, healing, and self-discovery. Rojas-Zambrano adapts this expressive arts approach in her art journaling workshops. Emphasis is on visual art, poetry and creative writing, but foremost, the activity is an engagement with process.  “There is also a mindfulness element,” she says.

Her typical workshop begins with an entrance meditation. She announces a theme or idea, and people choose materials they want to work with. Some of the art supplies are specifically provided to create a sensory experience, she tells me. They’re wet or tactile. Music, selected to enhance the creative exploration, plays. She might also read a poem, inviting writing or image making as a response.

Participants explore their response to their work and their response to others’ work. This is an exploration of materials and theme, and the group and yourself. They paint. They add layers. Images, symbols, words and colors emerge—from somewhere. Sometimes an absence is as important as a presence, or as Rojas-Zambrano puts it, ”It is about concealing and revealing.”

Emotions come up. “People are afraid to make mistakes,” she says. There are emotions about revealing yourself in a group. There are emotions relating to one’s skill level and one’s attitudes about that. When Rojas-Zambrano circulates in the workshops she might hear “I’m stuck” or “This is ugly.”

She clarifies, “This isn’t psychotherapy.” Rather, it is self-exploration, though some participants come at the recommendation of a psychotherapist. “I am there to hold a safe space for exploration. I don’t interpret the art. They do that themselves, but if I sense people want to talk about something, I will,” she says.

She has brought along a sizable portfolio to show me examples of her own work. I had really wanted to see what these art journals were like. I’ll tell you. The work is amazing. It’s colorful. It’s playful. The format is quite similar to an artist book. One is a mockup of a Romanian city map or tourist guide. One book is shaped like a top called a huipil from Guatemala.  There are at least 30 more in her portfolio, each in its own protective plastic sleeve. I want to see them all, but we are short on time. It feels a bit like arriving at a museum five minutes before closing.

I ask what I fear might be an invasive question about a symbol in one of the journals, and when I interpret the brevity of her reply as indications that I have overstepped a boundary, she tells me it’s not about privacy and that she actually has posted a lot of these journal “pages” on her Facebook page. I figured she might not have wanted to share everything about what was laid out on the page. Her brevity is more about the difficulty of providing a linear explanation or even rationalization for what has been made external.

“Some of these symbols and images are even a mystery to me,” she says. “They don’t all mean something or tell a story that follows along a linear path.”

In these vibrant works that are so masterful in their charming iconography, I realize some of the territory is not so much private as it is enveloped in mystery. The art tells a story made flesh, on paper. Her portfolio is a storehouse of things that have been submerged. Its secrets operate in a different way than I had at first thought.  Rojas-Zambrano comments, “In my art journaling work, something is left to mature over time. Some of it is just meant to be seen and felt, more than talked about.”

There seems to be a duality about art made for personal healing. It is not so much an object that rests on its style or execution, but is rather a means for self-discovery, creative expression, for giving shape and form to what needs to emerge, and ultimately for healing. She quotes some of her teachers and pioneers in the field using the concept of “low skill – high sensitivity” as an approach, where no previous experience or knowledge of technique is required, but an openness to the process and sensations that the experience itself brings.

These workshops are first person, experiential affairs. Maybe taking one of Rojas-Zambrano’s workshops would have been a better way to grasp these ideas. Here we are sitting at a café in Berkeley next to a line of patrons waiting for drinks, maybe even eavesdropping on our conversation. I have to rely on her words, though as a teacher and psychotherapist, words are her forte.

Among many involvements in the field of expressive arts therapy, Rojas-Zambrano holds art journal workshops throughout the Bay Area for groups of individuals, organizations and companies. Her work with the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association makes her something of a global ambassador for this approach to expressive arts therapy. She is on the association’s board. Rojas-Zambrano is herself from Colombia, but calls the San Francisco Bay Area home. She currently teaches at the California Institute for Integral Studies where she got her degree.

She tells me about an ongoing expressive arts and art journaling project she is a part of with the support of the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA).  Some fellow expressive arts therapists based in Guatemala City joined her to help facilitate an Expressive Arts and Art Journaling exchange linking a group of young Guatemalan indigenous women with Latinas living in the Bay Area. The project was funded in part by donations from IEATA’s members through an Indiegogo campaign.

Last January the team of therapists, led by Rojas-Zambrano, traveled to the village of Paxixil. There the young women, from 14 to 21 years old, made art journals in answer to the theme “What is it like to be a young woman in your village?” In the next phase, the art journals will become the basis of an aesthetic response with the local Latin American women in the Bay Area creating journals of their own to send to their Guatemalan counterparts.

“We are asking these women: ‘Who are you?’ What do you want people to know about you  and your life in this village. What are your strengths? At first, these women might have said ‘I have been a victim of abuse or I have not had a childhood because I had to work and take care of others,’ she says. With other women as correspondents, as “allies,” a term used within the context of the project, they hope to empower the young women and transform their outlook by encouraging them to focus on those small but significant aspects of their life over which they might have some power.

“We hope to reflect back their strengths and show them how powerful it is to share your story with other women, whether they are like you or not. We hope they can gather more strength from having the experience of being seen and heard,” she says.

She also mentions that the young Guatemalan participants had the opportunity to express how important solidarity is to them. Working together gave them something they reported is rare in their lives: fun. It’s something they would gladly have more of.

Next stop for Rojas-Zambrano is IEATA’s International conference in Hong-Kong, October 7-8, 2015, where she hopes to share this experience and continue the discussion of what art journaling can do to support people in the process of self-exploration and reflection.

For more information: Art Journaling Workshops


Katherine Relf-Canas

Katherine Relf-Canas splits her time between freelance writing, teaching and other projects. She also volunteers for PSE, an NGO that runs a unique school in Cambodia that serves and supports children and families in poverty. She is now involved with the recently established American Friends of PSE. She has written for blogs and contributed to literary sites and parenting magazines since 1996. Katherine began writing about the healing power of art for this site in 2012, and dedicated the project to her mother, Connie Relf, who worked as an artist and died in 2010.

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