As simple as you can for the wider audience out there who do not have knowledge of art therapy, please explain what it is and what it means to you.

Art therapy is a specialized mental health profession that synthesizes the benefits of artmaking, the creative process and an understanding of human development (psychology) to enable healing, growth or change (psychotherapy). The Art Therapist collaborates with each client in this holistic therapy to address individual concerns. It is open to people of all ages from all backgrounds and requires no previous art experience or skill.

What does Art Therapy mean to you?

Since graduating, my concept of Art Therapy continues to grow as it adapts to each client, evolving to embody new openings. Art Therapy for me is a responsive space that allows or activates whatever is needed: an immersive in-between space where creative thinking, feeling and doing expands our capacities and self-actualization.

How did you first discover about Art Therapy as a practice?

Since a child, I have always loved art: Creating scenes kept me occupied for hours; drawing & journaling helped my throughout my teenage years, then painting helped me through post-natal depression & PTS. It was only till much later that I discovered Art Therapy as a practice. Having left my first career as an architect to become a full time mom, my children were then teens and I felt restless, pulled to ‘find my calling’. I initially explored counselling with an idea to integrate it with art. A friend fittingly pointed me to the Art Therapy course in LaSalle and I never looked back since.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be an Art Therapist? Was being an Art Therapist your first career choice?

I studied Architecture after school and worked as an architect up until we started a family, then quit to be a full time mom. After my children were older, I returned to work in various part time positions but felt unfulfilled. It took some time exploring my interests before I finally discovered Art Therapy and returned to studies as a mature student.

What is the greatest joy about being an Art Therapist?

I am fascinated with people and art, so the sheer joy of witnessing a client’s growth or healing through the art therapy process is an amazing experience. This in turn fuels my drive to constantly explore art expression and grow as an Art Psychotherapist.

“I am fascinated with people and art, so the sheer joy of witnessing a client’s growth or healing through the art therapy process is an amazing experience."

What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an Art Therapist?

Poor awareness and ignorance of our profession which in turn affects career paths, job prospects and recognition as valid contributors in the mental health field. The need for professional regulation to clearly define Art Therapy and differentiate Art Therapists from Artists or Art Educators.

How would you encourage a fearful or reluctant patient to participate in Art Therapy?

For a child client: I’d first ensure that the child felt safe, relaxed & comfortable in the space and explain about art therapy whilst building rapport. I’d invite them to look through the art media and give them the choice and control of when, how & what art to make. Children are usually quite open to games so using humor and ‘art play’ like scribble games usually works well and eases performance anxiety. Or I’d introduce a choice of media exploration, putting the focus on the process not the product whilst assuring that all is acceptable with no ‘right or wrong’. I’d affirm each step of creative risk taking with effort-based praise. Always following their pace, attuning to their needs and reading underlying emotions in their facial expressions, eye contact and art making. All keeping in mind their age, developmental stage, presenting issues and Art Therapy aims.

Is there a difference to doing Art Therapy with clients who experienced trauma vs those who did not?

Definitely, as ‘trauma-informed’ art therapy takes into account the presentation & the impact of trauma (neurobiological, socio-emotional, cognitive-behavioural, relational aspects) as well as its impact on child development. Therapy aims are then strategically aligned with these on a case by case basis depending on the type of trauma (single, chronic or complex) & presentation. The main goal initially for trauma therapy is to establish safety (physical, emotional, relational and psychological) and building resources & coping. Working with clients with trauma, particularly childhood abuse is usually more complex and requires longer term work.

Working with clients without trauma (depending on their individual issues) may suggest a greater freedom in types of media, Art directives and pacing as there would be less censoring of media or types of directives that potentially are  too ‘triggering’ or overwhelming.

What do you think are some common misconceptions about Art Therapy?

That ‘Doing an art activity is Art Therapy’. This is only true if facilitated by a credentialled Art Therapist within a therapeutic relationship. Making art alone or as recreation with others is beneficial because of the innate therapeutic properties of art but is not specifically Art Therapy/Psychotherapy.

That ‘you need to be good at art’, when it is all about the creative process, self-expression & manipulating art media to make meaning.’

That ‘Art Therapists interpret artworks to ‘read minds’, which is false because meaning is a dynamic process where the client is guided to find & explore personal meanings and unconscious material associated with their artwork.

" Art & psychotherapy has in tandem deepened my reflection, processing and resilience. I feel that it has expanded my mind, body and soul."

How has being an Art Therapist affected other aspects of your life?

I feel I am living a more authentic life – experiencing a greater congruence in most areas of my life – relationships, personal growth, professional development and spirituality. Art & psychotherapy has in tandem deepened my reflection, processing and resilience. I feel that it has expanded my mind, body and soul.

From your experience, how do you think Art Therapy impacted the lives of your clients?

I think art helped them get in touch with their authentic selves enabling them to see themselves, others and the world in new freer ways. It changed previously self-defeating self-perceptions and beliefs into new flexible ways to be, do and act.

Do you have any advice for budding Art Therapists out there who want to start this profession?

Perseverance – there will be times when it’s exhausting, emotionally draining and discouraging as it’s a ‘still growing field’. Always make time for self-care and artmaking and don’t lose sight of what drew you to this profession initially.

How did you find out about The Red Pencil?

Through Lasalle: Laurence, the founder is an alumni and came to conduct a talk about The Red Pencil’s vision, mission and projects.

" Always make time for self-care and artmaking and don’t lose sight of what drew you to this profession initially."

Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have had thus far working with The Red Pencil?

My most memorable experience was: Working with a child with anger management. The Art therapy gave him a supportive space that revealed a kind, sensitive and highly creative child as opposed to his labels of ‘violent’ and ‘uncontrollable’. His last sessions were poignant as he continually expressed how much he’d miss the sessions and our time. I’ll never forget his insightful metaphoric sculptures that helped him sublimate internal conflicts and find hope. He remarked at the end, ‘I never knew I could be this creative!’.

I am grateful for all the opportunities of working with children from different socio-economic strata where access to private therapy is limited. Red Pencil provides invaluable support to these children.

Also unforgettable is that Red Pencil awarded my ‘first job’ contract in the difficult time job hunting after graduation. Incidentally, it was also working with a child with anger management issues. The contract sustained my perseverance in finding work, and reinforced my passion in becoming an Art Therapist.