“Art therapy is a different means to connect with people and a window into their worlds."

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

Art therapy is about utilising art materials and the resultant artwork within a therapeutic relationship to effect change within the client. It provides a non-verbal form of exploration and expression. It is different from art classes, and the focus is more on the process of artmaking rather than the eventual art product. There are different ways in which art therapy can be applied depending on the needs, functioning levels and goals of the clients. For some, it could be in harnessing the therapeutic effects of engaging in artmaking itself, while for others, it could be used in a more psychoanalytical way that focuses more on meaning-making.

What does art therapy mean to you?

Art therapy is a different means to connect with people and a window into their worlds. Much of our lives are surrounded by words and language which sometimes conceal real thoughts and feelings, but images and visual arts provide a different means of expression which allows people to delve deeper into themselves. For those who are non-verbal or speak a different language, art also becomes a common language for communication.

How did you first discover about art therapy as a practice?

I was first exposed to art therapy as a practice at my first job as a social worker at a social service organisation working with children with cancer. Part of my job scope involved supporting children with their diagnosis and treatment at the hospital using therapeutic play through the utilisation of tools such as books, toys, and art activities. However, it was not always easy to process deeper feelings with the children due to their developmental age or language barrier. I was thus inspired by my art therapist colleague who was able to connect with the children through a medium which they enjoy and delve deeper into their inner worlds to support their coping.

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

Growing up, I had always wanted to be in a helping profession to serve the underprivileged. At the same time, I also had a keen interest in art. While deciding my course of study at university, I was thus torn between pursuing social work and a course that is art or design-related. Eventually, I chose the former. Seeing what my art therapist colleague does spark curiosity in me and led me to explore more about what art therapy is. I was delighted to discover that it could be a perfect convergence of my two areas of interest and a valuable addition to my toolbox to work with a wider range of clients.

What is the greatest joy about being an art therapist?

It is in connecting with people at a deeper level, beyond words and sometimes conscious thoughts. Art therapy equipped me with the tools and skills to be able to reach a wider range of clients, such as young children and persons with intellectual disabilities, whom I had difficulties communicating with previously. It is amazing to be able to enter their worlds and know more about them through their art processes and the artworks which they create. The power of art gives voice to their experiences and opens up new windows for greater understanding and empathy towards them.

What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an art therapist?

As art therapy is still an emerging profession in Singapore, it has yet been understood and accepted as a legitimate form of therapy in some settings. Helping people to comprehend the differentiation between art class and art therapy as well as the underlying processes and effectiveness of art therapy interventions take much time and effort. The appreciation for creative exploration and internal growth could sometimes be obscured by the expectations for structured plans, targeting of functional goals or a quick-fix to issues.

“The power of art gives voice to their experiences and opens up new windows for greater understanding and empathy towards them."

What do you think are some common misconceptions about art therapy?

Most commonly, people would confuse art therapy with art classes and expect something aesthetically pleasing to be created at the end of the session. Another common misconception would be the expectation for the art therapist to be able to give interpretations about the artworks being created.

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

It is a road less-travelled and therefore fraught with challenges, there are also many discoveries along the way which would make it a worthwhile journey. Be brave to try new things and chart new territories to move this profession forward together.

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

Most significantly, art therapy provided them with a safe space for them to explore and express without judgment. Much of our lives involve performing duties and abiding by expectations in each of our roles. However, in art therapy, clients can explore and discover a different way of being and thus experience breakthroughs in their personal growth.

How does being an art therapist affect your life?

My training in art therapy has helped me to develop an appreciation for different perspectives and multiple layers within issues and situations, just like how there is not just one way of viewing an artwork. The deeper awareness of myself and the ability to flow with the process and stay with the unknown have also helped me to have a deeper appreciation of life.

“Art therapy has the potential of supporting children in being resilient and adaptable during these challenging times."

How has your background in social work played a part in your art psychotherapy practice?

My studies and experience in social work helped to build my foundation of working with people in terms of both theory and practice. What I have learnt in social work such as values and ethics, micro skills, lifespan development, cultural competence and interventions at individuals, family and community levels ground me in the work of people-helping. While psychotherapy delves deeper into the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of an individual, my social work background equips me with the lens to see the person in a context, in other words to also consider systemic interactions between the individual and his/her family and community. It thus helps me to understand and support people from a more holistic viewpoint.

What role does art therapy play for children during the pandemic?

The pandemic has posed challenges on this generation of children which were never met with before. While safe-distancing measures and home-based learning had brought major shifts in the way children learn and play, impact on the economy and trickle-down effects on the family have also impacted upon their emotional and psychological well-being. Art therapy has the potential of supporting children in being resilient and adaptable during these challenging times. For instance, online therapy during the circuit breaker period helped to normalise some of their experiences through play and art activities close to their hearts and provided crucial human connection despite the physical distance. Art therapy could also be utilised in the form of stories or art creation to help children express some of those profound feelings safely and make sense of all the changes happening around them.

How did you find out about The Red Pencil?

I learnt about The Red Pencil when they came to do a sharing at LASALLE College of the Arts during one of our first few lessons while I was studying there. Their mission of using the power of creative arts therapy to help individuals was compelling to me and I was personally interested in the missions that do, both at the local as well as international scenes. It was my privilege that I subsequently received a scholarship from them to support my studies at LASALLE College of the Arts.

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

One of the assignments I had taken up with The Red Pencil was to facilitate a group at a girls’ shelter in Singapore. While I had previously worked with traumatised children at a child protection specialist centre and residential children’s home, working with a group of teenage girls was a whole new experience for me. While it was intimidating entering their in-group at first, it was fulfilling to see them gradually lower their guards and immerse deeper into the artmaking process. Personally, I had a better appreciation of their lived experiences and learnt how to better engage with this client population.