Soup for the Soul: Art & Soothing With Giang Le & Michelle Baraba

The role of how art has played a part in psychology and in trying to understand the fundamentals of a human being’s mind predates as far back as the early 20th century.

Since its early stages in human evolution, art has held significant meaning in every individual’s life.

Hosting a set of stories has succoured humanity in presenting and giving voice to ideologies and narratives. The ability to create these pieces is then passed down from one generation to the next. Spilled into a plethora of subsets and genres, art and its perception of being tied down to being an aristocratic allurement has slowly been shattered over time by pioneers in the field. From the many ways to see it and the facets of art in the daily occurrences in life – fashion, written works, films, short videos, music, and more, the ideations of art have now found themselves to be a tool in the healing of the human psyche. 

The role of how art has played a part in psychology and in trying to understand the fundamentals of a human being’s mind predates as far back as the early 20th century. From Hermann Rorschach’s infamous inkblot tests that were misconstrued over time due to poor mismanagement of the scales to Margaret Naumburg, an American psychologist whose focus on art had gifted her the title, ‘The Mother of Art Therapy’ in the United States in 1915. The role art has played in giving and allowing patients to grow and heal themselves while honing means of self-expression. This has allowed a generation of individuals to find better ways to express emotions and allow themselves to feel valid in them.

Giang Le 

Photo Courtesy to Giang Le 

Through the art-making, how do you detect or pinpoint the issues they are dealing with? What kind of questions do you ask them and how was this demonstrated in your final artwork? 

GL: Through art-making, as art therapists, we will observe repeated themes and patterns appearing in the client’s artworks, their choices of art materials, and the way they interact with the art materials. Other aspects such as the client’s family background and their developmental history are also considered to have a holistic evaluation of their difficulties. We might or might not talk about their artworks, as being able to express the unspeakable through art-making within a therapeutic relationship is a healing experience in itself. If we talk about the artwork, we usually use open-ended questions to help the clients reflect and connect deeper with their artwork, which is an extension of the self. Moreover, we usually stay with their metaphoric images to explore their personal narratives. Staying with the metaphors also helps clients, especially children, and adolescents, feel safe when the issues expressed in art are not ready to be verbalized consciously. 

With the questions, to what extent does a person’s verbal associations to artwork created in each session support, contradict, or avail them in stages of discovery and recovery? 

GL: Art provides an opportunity for clients to connect with their inner world non-verbally and even preverbally, helping them to express what words could not do. In the art therapy process, the artwork is an extension of the self. When clients talk about their artworks, they are actually talking about different aspects of themselves, which they might not be able to touch using words alone. Within a safe and trusting relationship with an art therapist, unconscious materials such as disowned parts of self and unbearable emotions might be brought into consciousness in a contained manner contributing to their increased self-awareness and self-acceptance, which is essential for their healing process.

How would your role as an art practitioner guide your process towards healing if it’s conducted face-to-face? 

GL: As art therapists, it is important for us to continue our art practice and train ourselves to be familiar with the art-making process, and a great variety of art materials such as paint, clay, and found objects and their qualities. Art materials, with an array of characteristics including fluidity, rigidity, softness, roughness, brightness, and dullness, play a significant role in evoking and mirroring the diverse emotional experiences of human beings. As art practitioners with knowledge and experience in art-making and art materials, art therapists, when necessitated, are able to strategically introduce art materials and skills that can enhance the clients’ expression, enabling them to unlock their imagination and self-expression. It is important to note that it is not the art-making itself that heals but the art-making within a trusting therapeutic relationship with the art therapist, in which the clients feel safe to express themselves freely that is curative.

How would the accessibility of art therapy benefit the patients and in particular Vietnamese and on a vast scale, South East Asian patients?

GL: Art therapy will benefit Vietnamese and Southeast Asian clients tremendously, especially in terms of emotional and creative expressions as creativity and strong emotional expression might be culturally discouraged in these Asian countries. Thus, given its nature of free expression and deep emotional connection, I believe that the development of art therapy in Vietnam and Southeast Asia is greatly needed to support the well-being of Asian people. 

In your thesis, your sole focus was art therapy with a male adolescent experiencing cumulative adverse childhood experiences in a domestic violence shelter. Was there any particular reason for this?

As part of my postgraduate research, I was interested in some critical concepts and theories that are central to the professional practice of art therapy. My thesis explores the topic of the individuation process which is an inner process throughout one’s lifetime to resolve the paradoxical relatedness between one’s autonomy and connectedness with others. This relational tension is rooted in our relationship with our parents, especially in the early years and in adolescence, when the individual learns to separate from the caregivers to establish a distinct identity. Disruptions in the separation-individuation process in these years can lead to the potential development of self-other pathology, incapacity for intimacy, insecure dyadic attachment, and identity development difficulties. While a healthy caring environment is critical for the individuation process, not many people can enjoy a facilitating environment for healthy development. On the contrary, they might experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) which are defined as stressful or traumatic events including different types of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunctions occurring before the age of 18 years. In fact, local research is being conducted in the area of ACEs. For example, recent research on ACEs in Singapore reported a prevalence of 63.9% of Singapore’s population experiencing ACEs. I found myself wondering about cumulative Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their impact on the children’s normal individuation process. Thus, I want to explore this phenomenon and the role of art therapy through the therapy journey of the male adolescent residing in a domestic violence shelter as more insight regarding this topic is greatly needed for our particular contexts in Singapore/Asia. 

Courtesy of Giang Le

Giang’s Artwork Statement: Inter being and Inner Being make us whole. C.G Jung expounded on our shared experience of having an inner world filled with archetypes and inner images, with a life of their own. Connections with one’s inner world are essential in the realization of self. “Inner being” depicts a part of the artist’s inner world, where characters that keep the treasures of her childhood are befriending each other. “Inner being” invites viewers to reach within themselves and explore their own inner worlds with curiosity and tenderness. 

Michelle Baraba

Could you break down the structure of art therapy and explain the process of implementing these techniques related to navigating your clients’ conscious and unconscious expressions? How do you allow them to find ways to ease themselves and be in tune with whatever has been suppressed internally?

Art psychotherapy is an expressive approach that applies psychological theory through engagement in active art-making and the creative process, which helps individuals resolve issues, develop and manage their behaviors and feelings, reduce stress, and improve self-esteem and interpersonal awareness. In art therapy, the emotional and physiological components of the artmaking process are valued over the aesthetic qualities of the product. Being trained to observe and recognize what is communicated through the artistic process, art therapists work with images, symbols, and metaphors – all of which are unique to each individual. 

Emphasizing the therapeutic relationship, the initial sessions focus on getting to know the client and ensuring they feel safe and comfortable within the space. Each session is different, just as each client is. Sometimes I may suggest a medium or activity relevant to the client’s therapeutic goals, whereas in other cases the client may wish to explore and experiment with the various mediums available.

Photo Courtesy to Michelle Baraba 

Why was your sole focus on older Chinese Singaporean Adult males? What was the motivating force? Did you look into the possibility that the older generation was more expressive about their stance on embracing their sexuality compared to the current times?

My thesis title was “Expressions of Sexuality in Art Therapy: A Single Case Study of an Older Chinese-Singaporean Male”, meaning I focused on a specific client whose imagery and interactions contained varied expressions of sexuality within art therapy. As an art therapist with an inclination towards psychodynamic theory, I obtained an awareness of the complex and oftentimes unspoken, unacknowledged, and perhaps unconscious sexual dynamics being manifested and expressed within the therapeutic encounter. Having an understanding of clients’ expressions of sexuality not only leads to a more informed practice but also allows the art therapist to navigate the complexities of the therapeutic relationship in a productive and meaningful manner.

How do you defer the types of treatment between a child and an adult? Also, how do you determine the best types of treatments for your clients based on their age groups?

Children often best respond to humour and play, and so these approaches are normally adopted in art therapy with younger populations. As children are still developing their language abilities, art serves as an avenue for self-expression and provides clients with a voice through creative means.

In contrast, some adults may be more comfortable with talking, especially when their recent exposure to art-making has been limited. Some adults may require more encouragement to engage in art, as well as a stronger foundation of the therapeutic relationship before being comfortable within the space. Children are creative by nature and commonly approach new experiences with more curiosity and fewer reservations, so their engagement in art therapy may be more playful and carefree.

With psychotherapy treatment, how are science, art, and psychology balanced to inform such treatment? Did you also consider the possibility of differing cultural and religious practices within the community?

Art psychotherapy is the marriage between art and psychology, for the purpose of facilitating a process of healing and self-exploration. Creating and processing art allows an increased awareness of self and others, and improves one’s mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being. I was specifically trained through a psychodynamic art psychotherapy lens, which focuses on how past experiences impact our choices in the present. Scientific studies have established that art therapy adapts the brain’s physiological structure, producing a more adaptable and flexible individual. Both sides of the brain are utilized in art therapy, combining the right brain process of the nonverbal practice of art making, with the left brain process of describing and communicating the meaning of the art created.

As someone who has translocated from Croatia to Singapore 16 years ago, I have been immersed and enchanted by Asian culture since a young age. A culturally informed practice is absolutely vital when working with diverse communities and cultures, and this awareness and sensitivity were paramount within my role as an art therapy trainee engaging with local older adults.

Samoupoznavanje: Self-Knowing [photo credit to Wong Jing Wei].

Michelle’s Artwork Statement: C. G. Jung understood the mandala as an archetypal image symbolising the wholeness of the self. Samoupoznavanje: Self-knowing materialized as an artistic meditation to engage self-exploration, introspection, and self-awareness through mindfulness practice. The meditative and repetitive mandala weaving process endorsed a connection with the authentic self through the exploration of identity, existentialism, and various intrapersonal entanglements. As a tribute to her Croatian heritage and the humble fisherman’s village of Njivice where Michelle originated from, the natural materials of yarn, wooden sticks, and shells were incorporated into her creative process.

How is art used to facilitate the process of therapy?

MB: Art psychotherapy stimulates creativity and imagination, and pays close attention to the therapeutic and emotive qualities of different mediums. For this reason, an art therapist must be familiar with a wide range of artistic modalities in order to be able to introduce the appropriate medium for each specific client.

GL: In art therapy, art is used as the key media of communication in the process of therapy. Art offers additional dimensions including the art materials, art-making process, and art products, facilitating non-verbal expressions and providing extra containment for difficult emotions. In addition, with the additional dimensions of art, the clients’ experiences are made visible in a concrete manner which helps the clients objectify their experiences, keep a distance from them, and reflect on them.

What would you say, in your own words, is the most efficient expression of art that individuals can use to express their trauma? 

MB: Trauma-informed art therapy first assesses the manner in which the trauma presents itself within the client, as well as the accompanying socio-emotional, cognitive-behavioral, neurobiological, and relational features. Creating a sense of safety is essential when working with trauma survivors, in order to facilitate the development of coping skills and various resources to support the client. There is no “one size fits all” in art therapy, and so one expression of art may suit one client but not another; it all depends on the person and the type of trauma experienced (acute, chronic, or complex). Time is a friend when working with trauma, and the art therapy process requires commitment and perseverance from both the client and therapist.

GL: Every client is different and so their art-making and their therapy process are different. When working with clients, especially those who experience traumas such as sexual and physical abuse, their safety is our first priority. Without safety including physical and emotional safety, there can be no relationship and the therapy process might not be happening or even there might be a risk of retraumatization. Thus, we will carefully observe the clients’ pace and our therapeutic relationship in order to have appropriate interventions. When the clients feel safe with the therapy space, the art-making process, and the art therapist, they will express their trauma at their own pace with their choices of art media at the time being. Based on observations and evaluations of the client’s process, we might purposefully select art media and art directives that might facilitate their expression and invite them to try. For example, sensory art media such as clay and paint might evoke emotional experiences and memories. These materials and expressions might bring up traumatic feelings and thus, it is important that art therapists who work with trauma are well aware of trauma-informed practices to ensure the clients’ safety and therapeutic benefits.

What were some of the hurdles that you faced in your attempt to see your thesis through? For example, did you face challenges to come up with a concrete title and study? 

MB: I have always been interested and open about sexuality, and so it only made sense for me to begin an academic inquiry about it. My thesis was a first of its kind as sexual expressions of older adults in art therapy have not yet been researched in Singapore. I had to approach this thesis delicately to ensure I remained sensitive, appropriate, and respectful to the various aspects of culture that are associated with my research topic, and of course towards my elderly clients who may be uncomfortable with the concept of sexuality. 

GL: It was indeed both challenging and very rewarding. One of the challenges was to comprehend different theoretical perspectives regarding my chosen topic, the individuation process. I had to source, assemble, and go through numerous readings from contemporary to seminal texts in order to understand them deeply. Sometimes I had to engage in response art to reflect on my own upbringing and individuation process. As my thesis was gradually taking shape, I was indeed excited to see how the works of different theorists, researchers, and mental health specialists, such as psychologists and art psychotherapists, for example, complement each other to provide a holistic view of an individual’s lifelong process of individuation. That was when another hurdle arose, which was how to best articulate my insights, observations, and clinical impressions with others in a way that they could comprehend and probably relate to their own journey of individuation. All of these challenges and more have made my thesis journey a special and enriching one.

Do you intend to pursue a career in art therapy? If so, could you explain your reasonings behind this? If not, what are you leaning toward?

MB: Yes, just having finished my training, I am very much interested in pursuing a career in art therapy! I feel deeply passionate about the healing power of creativity and am looking forward to further exploring avenues for meaning-making, transformation, and healing.

GL: It has been my dream to become an art therapist. Before undertaking the postgraduate program in art therapy, I was a clinical counselor, and I experienced the healing power of art therapy on myself in short training courses in art therapy for professional development. Art therapy gave me profound feelings of safety, freedom, and deep emotional connection. I still remember how deeply I was moved in a group training session when I created my childhood garden and realized what treasures I had hidden in my childhood. At that moment, there was a gentle and peaceful flow in my body, which unlocked the invisible force of many years and unleashed a stream of free energy. For the first time in many years, I was feeling whole and integrated and I intuitively believed in my creative power. At work, I applied art therapy with individual and family clients when appropriate, helping them to express what words could not do. These experiences with clients further reinforced my aspiration for art therapy as I could see how it helped them deeply connect with their emotions, extend their self-awareness, and find peace in themselves. Since then, I have cherished a dream to bring its values to other people. My rich 2-year training journey in the MA Art Therapy training at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore has brought my dream to fruition. I have now become a professional art psychotherapist equipped with expertise, knowledge, practical experiences, and professional ethics and I aspire to develop art therapy in Vietnam where the discipline is still in its infancy. To further progress my professional career I will obtain membership, registration, and professional credentialing with ANZACATA (Australian, New Zealand, and Asian Creative Arts Therapies Association).

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