SCMP- Art for the Heart’s Sake

THE DRAWING is unlikely to win any prizes. Sketched in black and white, it portrays a war-ravaged market place. Superman can be seen flying towards the chaotic scene. But, instead of saving the day, he is overwhelmed by gunfire and hostility from people in camouflage uniforms.
The work, pictured above left, may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it nevertheless offers a prime opportunity to gain insight into the feelings and thoughts of children – an often insurmountable task.
The drawing’s creator is a quiet 10-year-old boy who recently returned to Hong Kong after spending nine years in Canada. He was facing difficulties relating to others at school and readjusting to a Chinese-speaking environment. Together with a group of children aged eight to 12, half of whom were new immigrants from the mainland, he attended six art therapy sessions organised by a social group Communication Through Art.
In an early session, when asked to make a human or animal figure in clay, the child remained silent and unresponsive while creating a Superman figure. But his behaviour changed markedly when he was later asked to explain the black and white drawing.
‘He explained to the group that the Superman was feeling a little bit wild, and was trying to come in and save the people but there was a war going on and he couldn’t deal with it any more. That’s why Superman’s hands were up in the air, he was feeling frustrated and nervous,’ says Julia Byrne, an art therapist who conducted the sessions with the group.
‘It was the first time he was able to speak out loud about his frustrations and anxiety. We can see there was lots of energy behind the strong images,’ says Ms Byrne.
She guided the group, who listened attentively as the boy spoke, to explore the reasons behind the frustrations portrayed in the drawing. The art therapist told the children that it was impossible for Superman to handle everything because there was simply too much to do.
‘If you think about the idea of Superman – somebody who is able to do everything – perhaps it reveals his frustration of not being able to do it all. It may also reflect his problems in adjusting quickly to a new environment,’ says Ms Byrne. Near the end of the session, another of the boys in the group wrapped a supportive arm around the 10-year-old.
Following that drawing session an even more noticeable difference in the boy was evident. ‘He appeared much more calm. He told us that he had a much better week at school. Then he exchanged smiles with his peers in the group. He was later able to speak about being isolated at school and how different he felt.’
Another participant of the group was a timid eight-year-old girl whose simple drawing acted as a conduit for her affection towards her father to shine through. When she presented her drawing of herself making a pizza for her father (pictured above right), she told the group that she wanted to play with him. Ms Byrne believes the sessions helped improve communication between them. ‘It sounded like somehow her father was able to understand the needs of his daughter.’
Art therapy operates on the understanding that the unconscious mind stores thoughts or feelings that sometimes emerge in dreams and behaviour. The use of imagery in art is taken as an effective means in activating the senses and tapping into emotions for the purpose of healing or problem-solving.
‘Creating a piece of artwork is like dreaming out loud as it can help pull out the unaddressed thoughts or feelings into a tangible form,’ says Ms Byrne.
Rooted in psychotherapy, art therapy was developed during the early part of the last century. It was recognised as a profession in the UK two decades ago, and is widely practised in hospitals in Europe and the US.
The subject is usually offered in postgraduate programmes in the US. Many who undertake the programmes have majored in art and minored in psychology during their first degree. Most of them also have worked in the fields of art, social work or mental health.
In Hong Kong, enthusiasm about the practice has been growing among medical practitioners and professionals from related sectors for the past six years. Ms Byrne set up Art Therapy Hong Kong two years ago, collaborating with local art therapists in offering workshops and short courses, in addition to providing clinical treatment for their own clients.
Art therapy is conducted in group or one-on-one sessions. The advantage of a group is that participants can draw support from each other, in the form of smiles, gestures of friendship, understanding or acceptance.
In contrast, the strength of a one-on-one session lies in the client’s intensive partnership with the art therapist. A typical one-on-one session begins with a time for clearing up any unaddressed issues brought over from the previous session. Then, the client may start to create an artwork under a theme he or she decides, or chosen by the therapist. There is always a time limit on the art-making process.
‘It is extremely important to keep straight boundaries of time during the sessions. Through using the time and space given to them to fulfil their needs, our clients learn to integrate control into their life,’ says Ms Byrne. Good time-management can also spread over to managing relationships and many other issues in life, she adds.
It is crucial to provide the client with a wide choice of materials to reflect the choices one must make in life. A typical art therapy studio is usually equipped with oil pastels, chalk, clay, paint, paper, tinfoil and a large variety of tools for cutting and pasting.
‘A client cutting rather than tearing a piece of paper may represent different things about what’s going on inside,’ says Ms Byrne.
In what she calls ‘confidential therapeutic space’, the art therapist deliberately avoids too many colourful decorations. The latter could pose as interference blocking creativity, she says. For protection of her clients’ privacy, all the art is stored in black envelopes.
The ‘process’ is regarded as being equally important as the ‘outcome’. The therapist’s presence is required throughout as the approach the clients use to create may carry significant implications about their emotional state or characters. The remaining time is spent on talking through the symbols in the artwork, which act as a channel for conversations between client and therapist.
A common misconception about the field is that a therapists’ work is to interpret the artwork. Rather, the aim is that clients discover themselves – with professional guidance – and work towards a solution to their problems.
‘Ultimately, everybody has in themselves inner resources which enable them to know what to do [to tackle their problem]. The actions involved in art making can help one to understand how to get out of a problem and move on,’ says Ms Byrne.
There is never a set of rules for interpretations: a symbol can carry different meanings for different people and may not necessarily be a mirror of the actual client.
Another frequent misunderstanding is that art therapy is designed only for those with ‘problems’. It may be associated with helping those with illnesses such as cancer or Aids, as well as the disabled, or those facing emotional and behavioural problems, and even those in prison. But it can also be used by anyone over the age of about six to understand more about themselves and their relationship with their environment. Artistic talent is not required because – unlike drawing classes – a client’s artwork is never judged on its aesthetic value.
But Ms Byrne says that art therapy works particularly well with children since most of them seemed naturally drawn towards the materials.
For more information contact Art Therapy Hong Kong,
tel 2504 5625, or e-mail The drawings featured above appeared by permission of the artists