INTERVIEW WITH TEH SHAN LI

Shan Li has facilitated numerous group and individual art psychotherapy sessions for at-risk students, neurodiverse children & adolescents, domestic workers, widows, inmates, older adults, and palliative care patients. She is also the co-founder of The Heart Therapy Space, a professional art therapy service that embodies the idea of embracing imperfections to rebuild and rise from experiences, guiding individuals to explore, express, gain clarity and heal, through the therapeutic use of art. 

“The role of the art therapist is to help illuminate, reflect and reassure individuals on their healing journey."

In simple terms, can you explain what art therapy is about to those who might not know what it is?

Art therapy harnesses the properties of materials to calm, communicate and consolidate our inner world of emotions and thoughts. 

What does art therapy mean to you and how did you first discover about art therapy as a practice?  

Art therapy to me is about providing a regulated, safe holding space for individuals to make sense of their experiences through the art-making process, and eventually develop some sense of acceptance for their inner feelings, emotions, and thoughts. 

I first discovered art therapy as a practice when my colleague at the Institute of Mental Health (Singapore) shared about how it can be used as a therapeutic tool to guide reflection, healing and awareness.  

When did you first realize that you wanted to be an art therapist? Was it your first career choice? 

I have always made art as a form of creative expression and mindful engagement. I wanted to be an art therapist when I realized that it is meaningful work and it allows me to integrate my interest in artistic expression with the knowledge from my Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Sociology.  

What is the greatest joy of being an art therapist?

The sense of mutual understanding and connection within the therapeutic relationship with clients is rewarding for me. I feel privileged to be able to witness and support individuals on their life journey. 

How did you find out about The Red Pencil? 

I found out about The Red Pencil during my studies at LASALLE College of the Arts, when they had come to share about their missions and programmes, and how they have been using the power of creative arts therapy to help individuals both locally and globally. Since then, I have wanted to be a part of their projects. 

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 with The Red Pencil was facilitating group art therapy for at-risk youths. It was heartwarming to see the changes in these youths, how they begin to trust, share and express freely as they allow themselves to be immersed in the art-making process. I also felt supported by The Red Pencil team throughout this programme and am grateful to be able to contribute to their socially important initiatives.

What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an art therapist, and what do you think are some common misconceptions about art therapy?  

Many people believe that art is only for children or for those who are artistically inclined, and hence they are hesitant to explore if it might work for them as a form of therapy. In fact, rather than creating aesthetically appealing artworks, art therapy is about the process of self-discovery, to gain a better understanding of ourselves and our experiences through visual and nonverbal communication. It taps into our innate ability as humans to imagine and create expressions that are meaningful to us.

“Rather than creating aesthetically appealing artworks, art therapy is about the process of self-discovery, to gain a better understanding of ourselves and our experiences through visual and nonverbal communication."

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

A large part of being an art therapist is ‘advocacy’ — for the profession, for the client and for the ethical practice.  

From your experience, how do you think art therapy impacted the lives of your clients?

Art therapy impacts the lives of individuals in gradual ways, and sometimes in small but significant ways that can be missed by the clients themselves. Hence, the role of the art therapist is to help illuminate, reflect and reassure individuals on their healing journey.  

How does being an art therapist affect your life?

It made me realise how important it is to cultivate a sense of wonder, creativity and imagination.