Art Therapy Is Less Intimidating, She Says, Than Traditional Forms of Psychotherapy

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Art Therapy Is Less Intimidating, She Says, Than Traditional Forms of Psychotherapy

"I prefer to use the term 'healing' to 'treatment,'" says Park Seung-sook, a 33-year-old art therapist, while explaining the process of an art therapy session. She recently published a book titled "Art Therapy When Your Mind Is in Pain," a follow-up of her previous book, "Understanding Art Therapy Through Films," published last December by Delneok Publication House. The book is based on a detailed analysis of six films Ms. Park chose because they were about people in emotional crises and alternatives to solving their problems through art therapy.

"It's not simply about red signifying nervousness and black suggesting despair. There are numerous possibilities as to why a patient chooses a specific form or color," she says. She also noted that the rich possibilities embedded in the patient's visualizations leads to self-discovery, consolation and eventual healing. Ms. Park arranges a discussion period before and after the session in order to put the patient's artwork in the context of their lives.

Ms. Park's studio-clinic, located in the second floor of her father's studio near Hong-ik University, is a homey space with painting tools scattered about and a small kitchen nearby. She says she tries to organize her session more like an art class so that patients can concentrate fully on their art work as a deliberate extension of themselves. Like many other therapists working in this "New Age" field, she has a skeptical view of the definitions of the "norm," especially when it comes to describing a person's mental state.

Ms. Park says many persons in Korea seeking help with personal problems prefer to visit an art therapist to a psychologist, because it's a less intimidating experience for them.

"Many patients like to think of this place as an art school," she says. During the sessions, some patients refer to Ms. Park as an art teacher rather than a doctor, even though her interaction with them inevitably requires basic psychoanalytical knowledge.

The difference between art therapy and other types of therapy is that the latter diagnose their patients based on general case precedents, while art therapists lead patients to make themselves aware of their problems and encourage them to take voluntary action to solve their emotional distress.

The medical law in Korea does not recognize art therapists as certified counselors. As a result, people like Ms. Park often end up working in social welfare institutions such as care homes for the elderly and transition homes for juvenile criminals.

Although it is mandatory for young offenders to see therapists, and the forced therapy affects the nature of the juveniles' relationship with a therapist, Ms. Park says the outcomes have been largely successful.

With her degree in art theory from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ms. Park thinks that art therapy offers potential alternatives to contemporary art. She suggests that the act of producing art has a therapeutic element.

"In a sense, we are going backward. I think art therapy looks back to the initial forms of art, when it was practiced by maladjusted artists as their own healing process rather than for the sake of being presented to the public," Ms. Park commented.

Despite her belief in New Age healing, Ms. Park also admits the uncompromising nature of art therapy, which is based on the idea that no one can know anyone better than they know themselves.

Having suffered from chronic depression herself while studying in Chicago, Ms. Park identifies closely with her patients. "I think every therapist initially chose the career because he wanted to have a better understanding of himself," she notes.

"It's interesting that most therapists end up talking to their family or friends when they face personal problems in their own lives. They tend to be suspicious toward other therapists. It's probably because they understand the limitations of therapy and know exactly what they will be hearing from other therapists," says Ms. Park. She also notes in her book that this is also because the acceptance of their weaknesses lowers their professional esteem, which requires them to stay in control.

Ms. Park added that she makes "reactionary works" whenever she feels the need to reflect on her own psychological position.

by Park Soo-mee

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