INTERVIEW WITH DR. ARA PARKER

As simply as you can for the wider audience out there who do not have knowledge of art therapy, please explain what it is and what it means to you.

When we express ourselves through the arts (at all ages), there can be powerful growth and healing. This may happen on many levels and affect an individual’s and group’s development in physical, emotional, artistic, psychological, social, intellectual and spiritual ways. Art Therapy and the Expressive Therapies are the means through which this can be done with facilitators/therapists who are trained in clinical and mental health skills as well as in use of various arts modalities.

How did you first discover art therapy as a practice?

I was working with professional success in the arts for many years already and met some people who told me about the powerful benefits of artmaking for children who had suffered trauma in wartime. I was curious and desired to make a more profound difference in the world through my work. I want a more directly relational way of working with others. I realised I would need graduate training in the field in order to do good work that was careful and ethical. After my first training placements, I was hooked.

 

“At the heart of the experience is the magic of seeing someone (and oneself) explore, evolve and transform under the right circumstances. It is a huge privilege to play a part in that."

What is the greatest joy, to you, about being an art therapist?

It has changed throughout my career as new experiences and new kinds of relationships evolve. For example now I get great pleasure out of mentoring and teaching. At the heart of the experience is the magic of seeing someone (and oneself) explore, evolve and transform under the right circumstances. It is a huge privilege to play a part in that.

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

Sustaining good programs is the biggest and most heartbreaking challenge. When you see the benefits of the work, and how the clients are so deeply nurtured by it, it is painful to see programs not be able to secure funding for long-term sustainability.

What are some common misconceptions about art therapy you have come across?

A common misconception is that you have to be good or talented at art to express yourself artistically and benefit powerfully from doing so.

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

I discovered spirituality through my art therapy/artmaking practice and as it related to my development as an art therapist. It has given my life meaning and a way to make meaning of my life.

How did you find out about The Red Pencil?

Through a posting by the Canadian Art Therapy Association.

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

There were many during my Mission in Thailand through the partner’s residential shelter (RADION) for children. We were focused on the joyous benefits for the children—and there were many—but the revelation was that we witnessed the caregivers finding new ways (during their training) to relate and work with the children and each other. They were able to see for themselves how this change was going to allow for fundamental shifts in the ways they would support the children’s growth in the future. They allowed themselves to play with the children and they realised that this could be transformative for everyone. They were less concerned about losing their authority as they discovered new ways to be engaged and creative leaders.

“Stay curious about your own process and creativity."

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

Allow those you are working with to tell you who they are and what they need. Provide them non-judgmental, caring support and a passion for creative play. Stay curious about your own process and creativity. Discover ways in which you may need to accommodate your approach to meet the culture of those you are working with.

You also have experience in teaching art therapy to others. How is teaching others on this subject matter different from practicing it? 

This is a big question because there is much to learn and it continues after graduation throughout one’s career and with the benefit of good supervisors too—I think I prefer to answer it by saying the ways in which it is similar. Teaching art therapy and practicing art therapy are similar for me in this way: I focus on being present in the moment with my students/clients and I work to help them foster and creatively explore ways to be fully present to their lives, and to others, and to the world in which we live.

“I carry with me, in my heart, some very deal souls. Children who delighted in the spontaneous moments of play and art making and who shared their spirit in caring ways with each other."

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learnt from volunteering with The Red Pencil International (Thailand)?

The work was harder than I thought and very multidimensional and I received many lessons. I will tell you what I took away with me that I cherish the most—I carry with me, in my heart, some very dear souls. Children who delighted in the spontaneous moments of play and artmaking and who shared their spirit in caring ways with each other. They were thirsty for love and support and bloomed in our midst. I was very grateful for the willingness and hard work of the partner caregivers who also gave of themselves and cared deeply for their beneficiaries. The Hmong children we worked with in Thailand were more focused on relating with each other and caring about the group experience than on the individual. This is a very different cultural worldview than that in the west. We adjusted some of our work accordingly and the children showed us how potent that could be.

As an ambassador for The Red Pencil, what is your role and why do you think that The Red Pencil’s mission is so important?

I would say that sharing the experiences and opportunities of the Red Pencil internationally was part of what I tried to do during my time on the mission.