Using art as a pathway into the mind

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Using art as a pathway into the mind

Sitting in the art therapist’s office in Apgujeong-dong on a bright Friday morning, I’m struck by the tranquility of the room and how distant it seems from the outside world.
As I look around, the elements that make up the atmosphere of the room ― the plush sofas, the soft telephone voice of a female receptionist and soft piano music ― seem, in a way, very staged. Yet, sitting here, I’m overwhelmed by the sense of calm.
I found out about Won Hee-rang, a senior specialist at the Seoul Art Therapy Institute, from a Web site. After quickly reading her profile, I was convinced that I should give it a try. And here I am, browsing through a stack of drawings done by Ms. Won’s patients, who are mostly children with autism and adult victims of domestic violence.
Most of the drawings on the shelf looked strangely similar, although all were done by different patients. You could sense the artists’ fragility in the lines, which revealed traces of desperation. All of the drawings looked like they had been done by children ― even the ones drawn by adult patients.
Small and friendly, Ms. Won fixed me some green tea and escorted me to another room, where I could choose the medium I wanted to work with.
“Whichever one is the simplest,” I said.
We sat down and she pulled out a blank piece of paper, a pencil and an eraser.
She asked me to draw a house, a tree and a person. The House-Tree-Person drawing is a common diagnostic technique used in psychoanalysis to dig at the subject’s subconscious.
In art therapy, a patient is encouraged to work quickly, without much consideration in order to reveal the subconscious. “You are what you draw” is the basic principle.
But I was taught to think and arrange the page before making a mark. I scribble sometimes when I’m talking on the phone or I’m under pressure, but since graduating from art school the only time I seem to sit down and draw on a blank sheet of paper is when I’m drawing a map to show someone how to get to someplace.
It took me a few minutes to loosen up. Finally, on the top center of the page, I drew a house ― a small, plain one with a tile roof, a large window and a road leading to the village, like something out of an Aesop fable. Then to the left of the house, I drew a woman resting under a banana tree. She was sitting on an uncomfortable looking chair, gazing into the distance.
“You didn’t draw a door in your house,” Ms. Won said.
She asked if I have any problems at home, an emotional burden I feel about my family perhaps. The absence of a door might suggest that I don’t want to enter the house.
She pointed to the unusual thinness of the woman ― a sign of a split personality in psychoanalysis, she said ― but added she saw this more as an artistic expression than a mental sign.
Later she showed me a collage by a 16-year-old female patient suffering from chronic depression. It was an image of a membrane next to a pair of threateningly large eyes.
In their first meeting, Ms. Won and the girl, seated across from one another, took turns filling the same page with curvy lines. The girl was asked to find notable shapes on the paper and tie them into a story. She found a man, a heart and an hourglass in the drawing, and said the man had left a will to his lover, saying that he wanted his bones to be ground into dust and placed in an hourglass after he dies.
In the second meeting, the girl drew a tiny tadpole that was being devoured by a fox. As part of the treatments, Ms. Won said she offered the girl a chunk of clay to throw at the wall, which she then splashed paint on. After about a week of such treatment, Ms. Won says the young patient confessed her fearful memories of being ostracized by her classmates a few years earlier.
Ms. Won was kind and unpretensious, a listener by nature.
Maybe it was the time of day, or how she phrased what she said, the careful uncertainty of her comments, but she gave me a sense of assurance during our hour-long meeting. It felt good to know my experiences were being felt by a stranger.
“In life, you either ignore it or accept it,” she said. “People come to me when it’s too painful to take either position.”


by Park Soo-mee

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