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21 SECRETS Spotlight with Rebecca Johnson, LMHC, ATR | Art Therapy Alliance Materials & Media in Art Therapy Series

The Art Therapy Alliance is very excited to kick off showcasing individual art therapist and art therapy student experiences from the  art journaling workshop 21 SECRETS.  This on-line event created by Dirty Footprints Studio is dedicated to 21 different art journaling classes and has sparked the interest and participation of many art therapists and art therapy students!  This spotlight series will offer reflections inspired by 21 SECRETS from members of the Art Therapy Alliance community to help stimulate ideas and interest about art journaling and offer considerations related to art therapy.

It is a pleasure to present the first spotlight in this series featuring Rebecca Johnson, LMHC, ATR. Rebecca is a clinical mental health counselor and art therapist in a community mental health clinic outside of Boston, Massachusetts, constantly climbing mountains of paperwork while staying innovative about art making with very limited resources and an even smaller space. And she likes to take photos. Much gratitude to Rebecca for sharing her 21 SECRETS experience, process, and art! Check out Rebecca’s spotlight below!


What interested you to become involved with 21 SECRETS?  I’ve been following along with an amazing art journaling project called A Year In The Life of An Art Journal (http://oneyearartjournal.blogspot.com), and the individual running that project, Rachel Whetzel, is teaching one of the 21 SECRETS (Silent Messages: How Saying Nothing Can Say It All).  I was most intrigued that several art therapists were leading a Secret, and wanted to be involved.  I love art journaling:  I use it as a supervision and self-supervision tool, it takes up much of my own creative work, and use it with my clients.  This is the first time I’ve signed up for an online class, and don’t regret it.

What class are you working on now?  I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t working on five projects at once! I’ve watched the videos (on my iPhone in an airport!) for Drawing Happy, Emotional Evolution and Beautiful You, Radiant You, and hope to create some art from my sketches and notes soon. These artists demonstrate how art journaling is at the same time playful, symbolic and extremely cathartic. And I just finished Becoming Brave: we were guided in making a tabbed journal with sections for body, love, work and life.   This journal could easily translate and be modified for therapy.  Two of the classes I’ve also watched, The Self Portrait Experience and Body Art Journaling, require exploration of our self-image, taking and altering self-portraits and even painting on our bodies.  I’m having a hard time with those!  The Self Portrait Experience provides a framework for all sorts of self-image and self-identity explorations that I’m excited to translate into my art and work.

What do you think are some of the therapeutic qualities inspired by art journaling approaches that art therapists should consider? I am most interested in the narrative qualities of art journaling. There is a story, filled with symbols and metaphors that begin to emerge as you work through the journal.  I love using old books as journals, and there is something about taking back and changing a story into your story that feels very powerful.  I have a client now who uses an old psychology textbook as her art journal – I really appreciate the juxtaposition between this old text and her present experience as she navigates the meaning of her diagnosis and the role of hospitals, psychiatrists and therapists in her journey.  All the traditional cautions apply, but I also find that using the journal/altered book format can be very containing. The same client struggles when things are messy or out of control, but within the journal, she is able to tolerate pushing this boundary and feels contained.  And her work carries over from session to session, providing a deeper cohesiveness to her therapy.  Art journaling is very forgiving, and is more beautiful the less perfect it is. It is all about layering, covering/uncovering, moving towards a place where it becomes easier to freely express and explore, making sense of the mess.

Tell readers more about some of the art journaling ideas, techniques, or concepts that you have learned in 21 SECRETS that you could incorporate into your practice as an art therapist and the population you work with:  I’ve already been using art journaling with individual clients who have experienced trauma, and have guided other clinicians in art journaling as a peer supervision tool.  But one of the main reasons I signed up for this was my secret plan to begin several art groups directed towards adolescents and transitional age youth. I am completely fascinated by this developmental level, the search for self-identity and individuation that is complicated by a multi-stressed family system, trauma, and/or substance abuse.  I’ve mentioned before that the journal becomes a story, and is containing.  It also provides a place to break down tasks into steps, to conceive of goals and begin figuring out how to make them happen. Art journals sometimes need prepping – so a creator needs to plan to lay the foundation, and let it dry, and then lay down the next level, and wait. I see this as symbolic in laying the groundwork for beginning the therapeutic work. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the journal as a place to explore boundaries:  a person can literally cover over something written, put it in an envelope, create a flap so someone has to take the time to pull it out and look at the message, create a drawer or hidden space within the book.  They can choose to journal, or write nothing at all. Prompts could be offered that include goals, lists, dreams, wishes/wants, to explore ambivalence, the possibility for change, and of course, the exploration of identity.

Any suggestions or tips that you would like to share for the art therapist or art therapy student just beginning to explore art journaling? I recommend only one thing: engage in your own art journaling before bringing it as a technique to a client.  Even as I’m writing this, I’m aware that while I feel comfortable with art journaling, I see my own boundaries of understanding.  Please be aware of your own, and that will translate to your work. Take it to supervision.  Ask other clinicians to make art with you.  Write.  Beyond that, there are no rules.  Try to not be precious with materials, thinking of it more like play instead of “art.” If you sign up for  21 SECRETS, begin with tutorials such as Playing with Patterns, Child’s Play Workshop and Fearless Painting to loosen up … and activities like these are great starters for your clients to learn how to manipulate media, to create a visual vocabulary and to begin understanding the concept of layering.  Sticking with the simple process of layering paint, images, textures, lines and words is perfect.  Do start keeping your eye out for discarded items: my most exciting fi
nd was four boxes of hardbound books outside a farmhouse.  Office supplies are awesome (and cheap); bubble wrap, string and erasers can be used to create stamps; old envelopes, recycled paper, random ephemera, discarded magazines and tape, glue and inexpensive acrylics are truly all that is needed.  And those gift cards with no money on them?  Perfect for spreading paint and glue.

What are you looking forward to next in 21 SECRETS? Time! I have a compulsive streak, so I had carefully planned out how much time I had for each class, which was not much.  But these lovely teachers have extended the length of time the classes will remain open, so the pressure is off!   I’m saving my favorites for last…I can’t wait to spend time with the YOGA + ART: Journaling into Awareness, which I’m hoping will incorporate movement, art and writing, and Me & My Shadow, based on Carl Jung’s concept of shadow self.  And, after my own heart – ready for revo’lution, a workshop on inciting transformation and change.


21 SECRETS is an ONLINE, self guided, art journaling workshop where participants will receive the opportunity to learn different techniques, methods, and approaches to art journaling from this group of 21 artists. Learn more about each workshop and how to register here.


About Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC

Gretchen Miller, MA, ATR-BC, ACTP: Registered Board Certified Art Therapist, TLC Certified Trauma Practitioner, Art Therapy Community Organizer, Artist...


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