INTERVIEW WITH EMMANUELA HALIM

In simple terms, can you explain what Creative Arts Therapy is about to those who might not know what it is?

Creative arts therapy is a marriage between creative arts and psychology/mental health. It is a way for us to process our experiences beyond what words alone can communicate. In clinical sense, I often use the triangle to illustrate about art therapy to others. It is where the client and the therapist meet along with the added element of art(s).

Sometimes I further elaborate about the scope of art therapy as compared to arts therapies in general as well as the media used, basically going along with the other person’s interest and questions.

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

It was rather a coincidence for me to stumble upon Singapore LASALLE College of the Arts’ brochure on MA Art Therapy. I have been looking for opportunities for a postgraduate study, keeping in mind that I wanted to find something that could further sharpen my psychological study background. A bit cliché to say, but arts have been a dear part of my life since childhood. Stumbling upon that brochure was like discovering an entryway to a world that could allow me to embrace the different aspects of my being. I took the step and opened that door.

What does art therapy mean to you?

If I am a baby, I would have my thumb to suck. If I am a child, I would have my legs to run around. If I am a teenager, I would have my pimples and bodily changes to show my puberty. If I am an adult, I would have my skills to do my responsibilities. And if I am a senior, I would have my wealth of experiences to pass on to the younger generation. Art therapy to me is a role, a developmental milestone, a process, a symbol, a path and a part of my identity.

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

The field of mental health was never in my mind to begin with. I didn’t think of it or want to pursue psychology initially. I looked into art therapy because I have first learned about psychology. I knew I would go through with my choice once I have decided to complete art therapy training.

What is the greatest joy about being a art therapist?

That it is never dull, never the same. I love the organic and moldable aspects of it. There is no one size fits all and you always get to discover more about things, other people, and yourself along the way. It is an evergreen field of becoming.

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

The ones I often hear are that the therapist would teach the client how to draw well and that the therapist will read the clients’ artworks to then tell them about themselves and the things they should do to get better. I understand this is in part due to the little access to proper information and/or education people outside of the field have. 

I love the organic and moldable aspects of it."

 

You have worked with a wide range of clients, from children to seniors. How different is your approach when working with people of different age groups?

This is one of the things I find most interesting about my work, where the possibilities are sometimes close to limitless. I’ve met children who are more mature and present themselves beyond their biological ages as well as adults who are anxious about—or sometimes denying—their ageing process. While I have guidelines to assess and establish baseline with each client, the way I bring them (and myself) into sessions will adapt to the client I am meeting. My clientele constantly teaches me to meet people where they are, to refrain from assuming things too quickly, to be sensitively present and walk each step alongside them.

“I see art therapy not as a field of interest, but as a way of life and being an art therapist as more than a profession, but a part of who I am."

How has being an art therapist affected other aspects of your life?

My journey in art therapy has brought a tremendous impact to my life as a whole. For one, I see art therapy not as a field of interest, but as a way of life and being an art therapist as more than a profession, but a part of who I am. The way I make meaning to my experiences, respond to life’s struggles and situations, and more importantly how I relate to others have all been partly shaped through my process delving into this creative journey of becoming. I believe art therapy is a way for me to fulfil my life’s calling, doing my part within the space granted. I embrace it with all I am and wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

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

By providing a safe space to share and express themselves, building trust with themselves and another to be able to embrace vulnerabilities without feeling like their safety is compromised or threatened. Also by discovering more about themselves, providing different perspectives to look at their situations, finding insights and being empowered to be their best selves.

Do you think your experience dealing with different cultures help you become a better art therapist? If yes, how?

Yes. That particular experience has helped me to be more adaptable to different situations and meet various people. With my current clientele, being adaptable is one of the things I need more than others. Other than that, it has constantly been a welcomed reminder that even within the same city/area, each person brings their own culture into the session. Not one person is an exact same to another, even when they’re brought up in the same city. This understanding constantly propels me to be my best at getting to know my clients as they are, keeping in mind the pre-existing stereotypes and possible biases, as well as looking at the best persons they can be.

“…the experience has no less than become a major part of my identity development, both as a professional and as an individual."

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

Expect the unexpected and own it. Every engagement with clients and situations—be it positive and invigorating or not so much so—is a space to learn for our becoming. We gain something from them as well as they from us. Make it your own and evolve along with your clients. It is in being genuine and embracing our own vulnerabilities that we can truly grow to support others to be their best selves.

How did you find out about The Red Pencil?

My lecturer from LASALLE College of the Arts. It began with a reference for art therapy scholarship and evolved into many more diverse engagements until now.

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

It has to be my 2-month residency in North Lombok. More than just an opportunity to be present for my home country or contribute to a community as an art therapist, the experience has no less than become a major part of my identity development, both as a professional and as an individual. I was most impressed and humbled at the many things I got to learn about life purposes and priorities, community values and principles, dreams and expectations, as well as partnership and collaboration.

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

The major challenges I experience so far are related to implementing art therapy in Indonesian context. First of all, in a country where art therapy is not yet well-established and mental health sector is not a daily priority, a lot of psychoeducation is required. This often leads to more energy and focus poured on laying the ground work before even taking further step into the therapeutic work itself. I’d be lying if I say I have never gotten annoyed at hearing the same questions over and over, such as about whether I will be reading into people’s artworks or that it is my job to teach children with special needs how to draw/paint.
 
Second, the culture where most members of the society tend to passively wait to be told what to do or how to digest and process things. Within the scope of my own practice as an art therapist, I am challenged to find creative ways to meet clients in sessions. Questions such as how I can help them to be open to themselves and creative-innovative possibilities as well as how to empower them to find the strength within themselves are among others that become constant part of the work. This also ties closely into educating clients about art therapy itself before/all throughout the process of bringing them into deeper therapeutic work.
 

Within the bigger scope of developing art therapy in Indonesia, that local context, paired with the small number of art therapists across the Indonesian region (5 credentialed and registered art therapists who are all female in our late 20s and 30s) adds to the pressure and stress of bringing the values of art therapy (or creative arts therapies in general). For most of us most of the times, art therapy cannot be our main priority due to other roles and responsibilities. Likewise, being a therapist cannot become our main source of income. We are still very early on finding our ways and rhythms to establish art therapy in Indonesia.