INTERVIEW WITH WHAEA SHARON REYNOLDS
In simple terms, can you explain what arts therapy is about to those who might not know what it is?
Arts therapy is a tool used in the healing process for those in various stages of recovery. Arts therapy uses creative modalities to engage with the unconscious in a less confrontational way than traditional counselling methods and gives way for the unseen, unheard and unspoken to be seen, heard and voiced.
What does arts therapy mean to you?
Arts Therapy to me means bringing the shadows into the light, to give people a place of strength to face the dark places in their lives and it is an honour to witness the light begin to break through and see them set free.
“Seeing my clients experience breakthrough is the best part of my work. The joy of witnessing a transformation moment is such a precious gift."
How did you first discover about arts therapy as a practice?
I was attending a Caring for Carers Workshops as the mum of a child with Aspergers and the workshop was run by art therapists. I had never experienced anything like it before, but loved it and felt so empowered by the experience.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be an Arts Therapist? Was being an arts therapist your first career choice?
After experiencing the Caring for Careers workshop I decided that this was definitely for me and began the journey of discovery and training shortly after. This was not my first career choice, I was unaware for most of my working life that this was even a possibility, it was as if it found me.
What is the greatest joy about being an arts therapist?
Seeing my clients experience breakthrough is the best part of my work. The joy of witnessing a transformation moment is such a precious gift. I get to engage with the most amazing people in incredible circumstances and it is a privilege to share a piece of their world. Plus I get to play all day and be creative all the time and that is such fun!
What are some of the challenges you have experienced as an arts therapist?
One of the major challenges I face continuously is making sure that I surround myself with positive experiences and make time for my own self-care and that my own children feel they are getting enough of me as I do give a lot of myself away in my work. Another big challenge I have found in starting my own company is finding others in New Zealand who are equipped with enough life experience to work within a community outreach setting like ours rather than clinical practice. We are a small nation and so building up contracts to support an increase in staff who could migrate is a definite challenge.
What do you think are some common misconceptions about arts therapy?
The most common I come across is that people often think you just help people to paint. People often think that it is about the art itself and don’t take into account or understand the art making process that applies to working through emotional concerns. They often think that what is created must look like something that already exists.
From your experience, how do you think arts therapy impacted the lives of your clients?
I have seen arts therapy have a greater impact for clients than other traditional forms of counselling/therapy by being able to break through the barriers and reach within a lot quicker and easier. It is less invasive and particularly for indigenous clients it has been much easier to communicate feelings and trauma in this way. We work with youth through a drama program mixed with some arts therapy (The Shadows Project) and each time we see the group begin to share the deep concerns and thoughts around suicide that were previously hidden and in some cases about to be acted upon and bring out into the open their truth and be able to progress that through to a public performance of their stories. It has been so powerful and all of the participants and their families involved each year say again and again how transformative this work has been for them all and in some cases even saved lives.
“It has been so powerful and all of the participants and their families involved each year say again and again how transformative this work has been for them all and in some cases even saved lives."
How has being an arts therapist affected other aspects of your life?
I think being an Arts Therapist has opened up my life to new experiences that I probably would never have had otherwise. The work has stretched me personally and brought into my life a greater gift of compassion. I am much more able to personally process my own situations a lot better and I feel this has made me a better companion to my husband and an even a better mother to my own children.
Working with children who have suffered horrific trauma and hearing the stories of prisoners that I work with has not only made me more conscious and aware of the harsh realities of life, but also made me even more determined to see justice as freedom from the inner oppression and to help others tell their stories. Being an arts therapist has inspired me greatly to see the good in mankind.
Do you have any advice for budding art therapists out there who want to start this profession?
Go for it! Be open to the possibilities and give everything a try before you settle on one particular modality because you will surprised at where you end up!
How did you find out about The Red Pencil?
I discovered Red Pencil when Caring for Carers New Zealand (http://carers.net.nz/) offered me some time out and support as a caregiver of children with disabilities.
Can you share with us more about the greatest moment or most unforgettable experience you have has thus far working with The Red Pencil?
The most memorable moment amongst many so far for me working with Red Pencil has been with the group of children I worked with in Cambodia at Hagar and one particular moment where we had been creating bracelets with beads representing those around you who make you feel strong. One of the boys who had been my shadow throughout the week had finished his bracelet and I noted a very large bright bead and asked him: “Who is this one!?” He replied: “It’s you Whaea!” It was everything I could do not to burst into a flood of tears in the moment! My heart was so touched and I just knew that everything I had sacrificed to get there was so worth it.
I see that you’ve had undergone various fields in education, how did that prepare you for your real life experiences?
I think that the training I have undergone over the years has equipped me for working with a diverse range of people and cultures. As a Careers Guidance Counsellor I can now see how the preparation of life experiences and the training gained along the way has formed me to be in the place of strength I am now in to establish, grow and lead others in my own arts therapy company. I have always enjoyed learning and my own style of not being limited to just one thing, which was always frowned upon academically, has actually produced opportunities for me to walk through a numbers of doors that would have been otherwise shut.
“I have always enjoyed learning and my own style of not being limited to just one thing, which was always frowned upon academically, has actually produced opportunities for me to walk through a numbers of doors that would have been otherwise shut."
Whaea Sharon is the Company Director and Lead Community Arts Therapist of The HIVE NZ Ltd.