INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTINE TOK
In simple terms, can you explain what art therapy is about to those who might not know what it is?
Art therapy is a form of therapy that helps individuals or groups of people through their visual art processes and their artworks using the psychological approach. Art therapy is suited for anyone who is comfortable with making art and it can help people with different areas of needs in many ways such as finding relief, restoration, healing, solutions and making positive transformation.
What does art therapy mean to you?
An effective tool for reality check! Since the art image reflects one’s inner thoughts and feelings so clearly. I use this tool in my regular self-reflection routine and this tool certainly comes in really handy for those who lack self-awareness as well as those who have exhausted what they already know through “talk” therapies. This is because the artworks made in art therapy are like “mirror detectors” that reflect both the conscious and subconscious minds.
How did you first discover about art therapy as a practice?
In my effort to provide support and advice to a friend who was confronted by a career crisis, I read about the Art Therapy short course offered by LASALLE that was shortlisted by her. Her subsequent weekly updates about what she was learning in that class had gradually increased my interest in art therapy as well as my understanding about it.
What is the greatest joy about being an art therapist?
What never fails to put a smile on my face is being able to celebrate with each of my clients as they experience an “ah-ha” moment, a liberation, a transformation, a glimpse of hope! Whenever I witness any breakthrough in a client’s life, a natural outflow of genuine joy arises from deep within me!
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an art therapist? Was being an art therapist your first career choice?
Back in 2008, the more I knew about art therapy, the deeper my interest grew! The passion inside of me began to stir up when my family and friends affirmed that I have a flair in several aspects of being an art therapist! I enjoy creating art without restrictions since young, I appreciate details in artifacts and I am introspective. Additionally, I am often the one whom my kin and friends would turn to when they need moral or emotional support; they find me empathetic, insightful and patient.
My first career choice was to be a teacher and that was my aspiration since I was only seven! To be an art therapist was a mid-life career switch as a result of a long search for something “more”. 12 years ago, I was thrilled that my search for an alternative career which enables me to reach children and their families at a deeper level was finally over! The desire to impact lives remain constant in me throughout my transition between being an early childhood veteran to being an art therapist cum Trainer.
What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an art therapist?
The only challenge for me is having to accept a client’s decision to throw in the towel; after all, to persist is a personal choice. Giving up is the only sure way for someone to fail; it is also the only reason my intervention becomes futile and I can no longer be of effective help to them. It is indeed painful when my client struggles to see the light I can clearly see.
“The desire to impact lives remain constant in me throughout my transition between being an early childhood veteran to being an art therapist cum Trainer."
What do you think are some common misconceptions about art therapy?
The first response I get from people who are newly introduced to art therapy is commonly, “But I cannot draw well” or an equivalent comment. The common question I get is, “If I show you my (my child’s) drawing, can you tell me what is wrong with me (my child)?” The general public seem to think that attending art therapy sessions require one to have proper art skills and that art therapy has the power to read into people’s minds. Consequentially, these misconceptions can send forth unnecessary pressure on people and deter them from reaching out to an art therapist to receive the help they need.
In actual fact, art therapy is most effective when one is spontaneous and authentic in the art process; being trained in art or not is never the key factor. Besides, there are so many forms of visual art; surely, to create a doodle, an abstract painting or a collage do not require any art training. Even an art therapist like myself have zero formal training in art; I simply enjoy the process of making art and exploring personal meanings in them! Through art therapy, the art therapist facilitates the process to help clients find deep personal meanings in their artworks to gain deeper awareness of the subconscious mind that significantly influence their feelings, thoughts as well as their assessment of situations and people. Although art therapists are trained in Psychodynamic Processes and Pictorial Analysis, we certainly do not and should not presume or foretell anything merely from one’s artworks or behaviours.
“Their breakthroughs often begin with a powerful mindset change which translate into positive transformations in the way things are perceived and done."
From your experience, how do you think art therapy impacted the lives of your clients?
I have witnessed how art therapy has impacted the very young to the very senior; people from all walks of life who had encountered varied challenges in life. My clients find freedom to express and explore deep thoughts and difficult feelings while I consistently hold that psychological safe space for them. Not only do they find relief from the therapeutic process, they often uncover hidden messages from within themselves through their art process and artworks. Their breakthroughs often begin with a powerful mindset change which translate into positive transformations in the way things are perceived and done. The therapeutic resources gained throughout the art therapy sessions continually produce impactful internal changes that sustain them even after they terminate from therapy.
How does being an art therapist affect your life?
I wouldn’t say being an art therapist has affected my life in any way. I am pretty much whom I am; with the art therapist hat on or off! Empathetic and patient are common descriptions about me amongst my friends as well as my clients. I always deeply feel for and with my clients as I journey closely with each of them. Though the feelings are very real, I mindfully ensure that those emotions are kept within the therapeutic space so that I remain unaffected in a personal way. Maintaining a healthy psycho-emotional boundary is key to keeping myself and my loved ones safe while keeping my clients safe. I see this professional distance as a vital responsibility on my part.
I can only find a minute factor if I have to think of one thing that being an art therapist has affected my life. I generally cannot hang out with my clients even if I like to be acquainted with them as a friend!
Do you have any advice for budding art therapists out there who want to start this profession?
As art therapists, it is highly important to keep ourselves safe and sane for two main reasons; to take care of our own well-being and also the well-being of our clients. An unhealthy Art therapist can pose unintentional danger to their clients. It is therefore our responsibility to be diligent in being self-reflective and proactive in working on our personal issues so as to consistently keep ourselves in the pink of health emotionally, mentally and psychologically.
How did you find out about The Red Pencil?
I received email invitations from The Red Pencil to register for an overseas disaster deployment training with the Singapore Red Cross when I freshly graduated from the Masters in Art Therapy about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve been fascinated about the meaningful work that The Red Pencil was doing and was drawn to find out more.
Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have had thus far working with The Red Pencil?
Wow, this question brings me back to a memorable first meeting with the founder of The Red Pencil, Ms Laurence Vandenborre! She left me with such a deep impression the evening I saw her at her black and white warm residence with a group of other art therapists. What touched my heart since is that Laurence, being the heart and head behind all those amazing missions remain so humble and hands-on. Witnessing her commitment over all these years while working with her and knowing her, I can say that Laurence truly lives her mission in rescuing the child to save the adult.
How has your education in early childhood influenced your career as an art therapist?
As a leader in the early childhood field, it had been my priority to only hire teachers with genuine passion for children. I’d also been advocating that teachers and parents respect children and their freedom to make choices. I truly cared about the whole being of my young students as a teacher, a principal and a school owner over the 25 years. But I wished I had more time and abilities to attend to their emotional needs and the needs of their families. This had led me on a search for an additional expertise that would equip me to fulfil this role. When I learned about Art therapy, I was sure that it will help children because children are generally drawn to art naturally.
What makes working with children so special to you?
Being able to work with children is a privilege because we are their first influencers. Early childhood educators are the first people who get to introduce new things to preschoolers and spend the most time with them besides their own families. Young children are so vulnerable; they are like a sponge that absorbs everything they are exposed to. The influence and impact made on these kids are often life-changing!