INTERVIEW WITH LEE SHULIAN
In simple terms, can you explain what art therapy is about to those who might not know what it is?
Art therapy” when unpacked into two sub-terms is “art” and “therapy”. Art generally refers to creating artworks using art materials. The English word, “therapy” is derived from a Greek word that means “curing”, “healing”, or “treatment”. Here, the treatment is through the understanding of human behaviors and emotions. Simply said, when art and psychology marries, it is about understanding human behaviors and emotions through the art forms or interaction with art-making.
Suppose someone were to ask about the difference between engaging in an art activity and art therapy, I would say the formal focuses on the aesthetic outcome of the artwork while the latter focuses on the art-making process.
For example, a person goes for a watercolour painting class, he or she will learn the various techniques of watercolour painting such as wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry techniques. However, in art therapy, it is not so much what techniques the person uses to achieve the desired artistic outcome. Rather it emphasizes on how he or she expresses using the choice of art materials, ways of application. The art-making process thus becomes a point of reflection for insights into one’s psycho-socio-emotional states.
What does Art Therapy mean to you?
Art therapy can be for anyone, whether you have a major mental or physical illness or someone who simply wants to improve their mental well-being. In the mental health service profession, art therapy is often viewed as a complementary model to augment existing psychotherapies.
It further affirms the idiosyncratic nature of healing that every person is unique, and recovery takes on a distinct path. Creating a safe space where clients feel welcome and socially included for their creative expression is a pertinent ingredient in art therapy because relationships are built on a secure attachment principle.
The artworks created during the session or accumulated over time stand as a witnessing artefact for the client as well as the therapist. We can revisit the artworks as many times and each revisit may reveal a thing or two that were previously unknown. It is likened to treasure hunting. Suppose our unconscious is externalized into art forms, it is only through passing time, we gain the cognitive conscious to truly appreciate what the unconscious is trying to reveal to us. Therefore, art therapy is viewed as a non-invasive, non-hasty tool to probe our unconscious and the subtle nuances that transpired during our interactions, which we might not have words for, at least at that period. Words would eventually come after the cognitive synthesis kicks in place to process the unspoken nuances.
How did you first discover about Art Therapy as a practice?
It was during the time I was practising as a school counsellor, I met a fellow colleague who was an art therapist turned counsellor that I learnt about art therapy. Also, in the training programme for school counsellors, I had a preliminary exposure seeing how an art therapist used art as a tool to engage less communicative clients.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an Art Therapist? Was being an Art Therapist your first career choice?
After some years in the profession as a counsellor, I was looking for training opportunities to further my skill set, and I was drawn to the art therapy framework.
No, being an art therapist was not my first career choice, partly because art therapy was unheard of for a long time. It entered into the counselling scene after the counselling profession began to mature and grow steadily in the Singapore market.
What is the greatest joy about being an Art Therapist?
The quality of ambiguity, hence learning to “trust the process” and embracing the principles of liminality are keys to pushing the individual forward in therapy.
The opportunity to work with various people on a continuum, from persons living with chronic illness(s), children with grief, delinquent youths, working adults to older adults; their personal journeys in art-making are always a delightful adventure to be part of because each encounter is unique.
“…learning to 'trust the process' and embracing the principles of liminality are keys to pushing the individual forward in therapy."
What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an Art Therapist?
Coming up with creative intervention plans to promote change, insights and well-being for the clients can be challenging yet exciting at the same time. A therapeutic intervention plan often has to be customized to cater to individual needs and situations. As the saying goes, “one size does not fit all”. While the exterior behaviors may look the same, the underlying cause is often very different. It is the complex intricacies of one’s psychological state that demands a lot of adaptations and flexibility from the therapist to implement an appropriate and effective intervention plan.
What do you think are some common misconceptions about art therapy?
- That art therapy is likened to a form of fortune-telling, to make predictions from the pictures or symbols drawn.
- That a person has to be professionally trained in art to benefit from art therapy. It is an advantage should the person has a liking for art-making because that would aid in the process of art-making, as compared to someone hesitant and uncertain about art-making.
- That art therapy is always therapeutic and relaxing.
Art therapy is not about making predictions, it is about being receptive to explore various art materials and methods, and there is no right or wrong way of creating. There will be times when clients experience discomfort due to confrontational issues they have to work on. As such the art-making process may feel intense rather than relaxing.
From your experience, how do you think art therapy impacted the lives of your clients?
Art therapy, in many contexts, acts as a complimentary handle. Offering clients experience with art-making in a non-threatening manner where they can choose what the art outcome is, and what to comment on is parallel to clients regaining the control of their life situation. When they receive self-empowerment, they are more motivated to shift gears for changes to happen in their lives.
How has being an art therapist affected other aspects of your life?
I learnt and still am learning to be patient. That means to say I do not always have what I want or hope as an outcome.
Turning to art-making to regulate my emotional state, not something I would do in the past, but now as an art therapist, response art-making is my coping strategy against stresses.
" To me, art therapy is a profession that speaks volume about the intersubjectivity, the nuances, and the ambiguity of artistic appreciation.
Yet at the same time, it demands the therapist to be flexible to the changes emerged, stemming from the complex intricacies of one’s psychological state."
You have a very diverse professional background, from teacher to lab analyst to counsellor. How did these prepare you for the art therapy profession?
Learning to be flexible whilst paying attention to fine(r) details.
To me, art therapy is a profession that speaks volume about the intersubjectivity, the nuances, and the ambiguity of artistic appreciation. Yet at the same time, it demands the therapist to be flexible to the changes emerged, stemming from the complex intricacies of one’s psychological state.
Do you have any advice for budding art therapists out there who want to start this profession?
For whoever is pursuing art therapy training and is serious about the profession; when met with roadblocks, we are to recount Dr Shaun McNiff’s famous saying “trust the process”. What has begun will be completed, in its designated time and space. The role of an art therapist oftentimes is simply hand-holding the client to walk alongside till the hurdle is passed; then another person will come along to walk with your client. An art therapist is not a game-changer; he or she is more of a sojourner.
How did you find out about The Red Pencil?
The Red Pencil was one of the invited speakers at different occasions in LASALLE. I remembered in December 2016, I signed up for a dialogue session: Art therapy: Is this a career for you?” It was through such outreach dialogues, I first heard about The Red Pencil.
Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have had thus far working with The Red Pencil?
Clinical supervision offered by Dr Daphna Kehila allowed me to gain valuable insights from to assist my work with Wicare, my first Red Pencil assignment. Supervision is pertinent to the professional development of a practitioner because it offers accountability, encouragement, guidance and mentoring between the supervisee and supervisor.