Expressive arts therapy and mestiza consciousness: Practicing in a "wild zone”

June 16, 2018


To write, to be a writer, I have to trust and believe in myself as a speaker, as a voice for the images… When I write it feels like I'm carving bone. It feels like I’m creating my own face, my own heart—a Nahuatl concept. My soul makes itself through the creative act. It is constantly remaking and giving birth to itself through my body. It is this learning to live with la Coatlicue that transforms living in the Borderlands from a nightmare into a numinous experience.  It is always a path/state to something else.  (Anzaldúa, 1999, p. 95)

Photo of the “Erased” Border. Reprinted from the website of Ana Teresa Fernández by permission of the artist.


In 1987, when Gloria Anzaldúa wrote a manifesto of mestiza consciousness in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza she did so by entering the imaginal realm; giving voice to her multiple, hybridized, and politicized identities; communicating with images; and giving these images (along with her story, Chicano feminist history, and the borderlands) form through her writing. Her writing represented a new voice in women’s studies, Chicana/Latina studies, feminism, queer studies and contemporary American women’s autobiography (Saldívar-Hull, 2000).  It also represented an embodiment of the “wild zone” – of an encounter with the imaginal and its subsequent articulation through a “creative act.”  In this, mestiza consciousness has much to offer expressive arts therapy – perhaps even an articulation of an “indigenous” theory.


Emerging out of anthropology and feminist literary theory, the term “wild zone” stands as a paraphrase for the paradoxes and multiple perspectives inherent in the self-definition of the marginalized (Ardener, 1975; Candelaria, 1993). For Anzaldúa this challenge took the form of not privileging or denying one identity in favor of another. In articulating and defining her identity as woman/Aztec/Mexican/ American/queer/lesbian she also recognized, celebrated, critiqued and grappled with the tensions inherent in the essentialist definitions associated with these identities.  Anzaldúa articulated a multiple, hybridized, and political identity, defying dualism, and as a lesbian woman of color with the triple jeopardy of compounded oppression inherent, she also recognized the power and choices inherent in her pluralistic identities, identities on either/both sides of the border and at the borderland itself.


Expressive arts therapy, like other creative arts therapies, defines itself as an arts-based “approach” to therapy, but also reconstructs the practice of therapy to include arts-based processes as a primary means of inquiry, engagement, and change. Expressive arts therapy, unlike its sibling professions of art therapy, dance/movement therapy, drama therapy, and music therapy, is not organized around the application of one specific art modality; instead, expressive arts therapy is an interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary multimodal practice that promotes radical inclusivity, one grounded in an approach that embraces a use of all arts (our professional organization not only credentials expressive arts “therapists” [REAT] but also credentials expressive arts “educators/consultants” [REACE] and includes artists not identified as therapists, educators or consultants – see


Expressive arts therapy, as a distinct profession, is a field at the borderlands – it resists essentialist definitions.  Using the metaphor applied to feminist reconstructions of “woman-ness” and resistances to essentialist definitions (Candelaria, 1993), expressive arts therapy functions within a “wild zone,” on the borderlands between and within many cultures; the cultures of art and therapy, the cultures of creative arts therapy and counseling, the cultures of social action and clinical practice, and the cultures of singular professional identity within the arts therapies and pluralist identities. 


Like many disciplines, expressive arts therapy is made up of “an assortment of smaller scholarly communities that bring diverse viewpoints to the productions of knowledge. These smaller disciplinary subcultures privilege selected research methodologies, bodies of literature, or research questions” (Holley, 2009, p. 13).  These include the person-centered approach to expressive arts therapy (Rogers, 1993); the use of “decentering,” “aesthetic responsibility” and “intermodal transfers” (Knill, Levine, & Levine, 2005); the philosophy of polyaesthetics (Knill, 1994) and poiesis (Levine, 1993); the use of embodied attunement (Kossak, 2015), trauma-informed approaches (Richardson, 2016), and the application of womanist ideas (Drake-Burnette, Garrett-Akinsanya, & Bryant-Davis, 2016). This diversity of approaches is not unusual, and yet these disciplinary edges can make self-definition fuzzy. 


Despite this growing diversity of theoretical frameworks for expressive arts therapy as a singular discipline there are few educational programs specific to the training of “expressive arts therapists.” Few arts therapists are even aware of “expressive arts therapy” as a distinct profession, and this emerging field continues to be marginalized. Theoretical frameworks that promote an integrated arts approach are not well-known outside of a small community, and expressive arts runs the risks of being reduced to a “technique” within counseling (Degges-White & Davis, 2011).  As new research in arts therapies recognize the common therapeutic and theoretical bases of our work across creative arts therapy disciplines (such as embodiment [Koch & Fuchs, 2011] and aesthetics [Kirsch, Urgesi, & Cross, 2016]) a conversation regarding the place of “expressive arts therapy” and how it defines itself in the larger creative arts therapy community is timely. 



Dr. Karen Estrella is the Expressive Arts Therapy Program Coordinator in the Expressive Therapies Division at Lesley University. Research interests include issues of professional development and identity for both counselors and Expressive Therapists. Dr. Estrella has an interest in training, clinical practice, and supervision of Expressive Therapies; multicultural approaches to Expressive Therapies; psychodynamic psychotherapy and supervision and its applications to Expressive Therapies; and social action and activism through the arts, particularly when integrated with therapeutic practice.






Anzaldúa, G.E. (1999) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books. (Original work published 1987)


Ardener, E. (1975). Belief and the problem of women. In S. Ardener (Ed.), Perceiving women. London, UK: Malaby Press.


Candelaria, C. C. (1993). The “wild zone” thesis as gloss in Chicana literary study. In R. R. Warhol & D. P. Herndl (Eds.), Feminisms. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.


Degges-White, S. and Davis, N. (2011).  Integrating the Expressive Arts into Counseling Practice.  New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.


 Drake-Burnette, D., Garrett-Akinsanya, B., & Bryant-Davis, T. (2016). Womanism, creativity, and resistance: Making a way out of 'no way'. In T. Bryant-Davis & L. Comas-Díaz, (Eds.), Womanist and mujerista psychologies: Voices of fire, acts of courage (pp. 173-193). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14937-008.


Holley, K. A. (2009). Defining interdisciplinarity. ASHE Higher Education Report, 35(2), 11-30. 


Knill, P., Levine, E., Levine, S. (2005). Principles and practice of expressive arts therapy: toward a therapeutic aesthetics. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Knill, P. (1994). Multiplicity as a tradition: Theories for interdisciplinary arts therapies - An overview. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 21(5), 319-328.


Koch, S. C., & Fuchs, T. (2011). Embodied arts therapies. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38, 276-280.


Kossak, M. (2015). Attunement in expressive arts therapy: Toward an understanding of embodied empathy. Springfield, Illinois: Charles Thomas.


Kirsch, L. P., Urgesi, C., & Cross, E. S. (2016). Shaping and reshaping the aesthetic brain: Emerging perspectives on the neurobiology of embodied aesthetics. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 62, 56-68. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.12.005


Levine, S. (1997). Poiesis: The language of psychology and the speech of the soul (2nd Ed.). London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Richardson, C. (2016). Expressive arts therapy for traumatized children and adolescents: A four-phase model.  New York: Routledge: Taylor and Francis.


Rogers, N. (1993). The creative connection: Expressive arts as healing.  Palo Alto,            CA: Science and Behavior Books, Inc.


Saldívar-Hull, S. (2000). Feminism on the border: Chicana gender politics and literature. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.






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