Healing power of art tapped by therapistsPointing to a drawing of a house, trees and people made by a 9-year-old girl, Dr. Chun Soon-young, director of the Seoul Art Therapy Institute, explains, “The house with no door means this child is closed toward her family. This tells us that in her home, people are not interacting with each other.”
Her diagnosis is part of art therapy, a field of medicine that has been around for many centuries but only become a modern, clinical profession in the last 70 years. Through drawing, coloring, painting and clay modeling, one can enhance self-awareness, cope with stress as well as deal with traumatic past experiences, experts say.
Since it was first introduced to Korea in the early 1990s, art therapy has even been used to help patients with mental, physical and emotional conditions, including people affected by Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
“It can be cathartic for children to reveal their true feelings through art,” says Dr. Chun. “At one point of pouring out their suppressed feelings of frustration and loneliness, some kids cry their eyes out.”
The Korea Art Therapy Association was established in 1992 in Daegu, and there are currently 200 art therapists registered by the association. The founder of the association was the late Professor Kim Dong-yeon of Daegu University, a pioneer in the field. Since 2000, universities such as Seoul Women’s University and Wonkwang University have been offering courses in art therapy, and interest in the subject has been on the rise. Major hospitals offer art therapy by either hiring art therapists or taking in volunteers to help patients.
In a one-on-one session with a therapist, a child is asked to draw or create art. The child is then asked to discuss the piece, revealing his conscious state when the work was created.
The therapist observes the gestures and movements of a child during the art sessions because they can also reveal their disposition. “Merely relying on the pictures can lead to ‘blind analysis,’ so we are careful to observe the manner of speech and action when drawing conclusions,” says Dr. Chun, who majored in child education in college and received a masters in fine arts and a doctorate degree in rehabilitation psychiatry.
Dr. Chun’s institute is in the affluent district of Gangnam, and many of the children who receive therapy are from well-to-do families, such as doctors, business executives, lawyers and professors. The pressure often put on children from those families can be intense, affecting their children’s personality.
“These are smart children, but they are emotionally devoid and stifled,” Dr. Chun says.
Pointing to a persimmon tree drawn by her 9-year-old patient, Dr. Chun says, “There is lots and lots of fruit growing on the trees, which signifies that the child wants to be loved. But some persimmons are falling down, which means that her yearning to be loved is failing in reality.”
The picture is drawn on white paper with a pencil, and in it several boys and girls are playing together. In a corner, another girl is hanging from an iron bar, watching. Dr. Chun explains, “This indicates to us that the girl feels that socializing with her peers is daunting.”
When Dr. Chun met her child client, she asked the girl ― who was brought by her mother to the clinic after she had trouble getting along with others at school ― to draw a picture with a house, tree and people. The result indicated her emotional state, Dr. Chun says.
“This is a basic diagnostic exercise we use in art therapy, whereby the house implies the family environment, the people are a reflection of the person, and the trees are the growth energy or spirit within a person,” she explains.
She adds, “This girl has been mentally neglected by her parents, as can be seen in what she has drawn. She is extremely intelligent for her age, in the way she articulates her illustrations, but she is emotionally backward and finds it hard to talk with others.”
For several months, Dr. Chun met once a week with the girl, who asked not to be identified, helping her draw and then discussing her drawings afterwards.
“Art is a medium of dialogue,” says Dr. Chun. “In a home where the parent-child dialogue has been severed, art allows the child to express his or her feelings. And the process of reopening dialogue, of communicating openly about one’s sentiments is what healing is all about.”
About two thirds of Dr. Chun’s clients are children under 18 years old who are either too timid or too aggressive. Dr. Chun attributes the majority of these “emotional and developmental disabilities” to broken mother-child relationships.
“Whether one likes it or not, 70 percent of a child’s rearing is done by the mother,” she says. “If a child’s relationship with the mother is marred, then the child will not function properly in his or her relationship with the father, siblings or peers.”
Spending time together in art therapy is also helpful to overcoming broken relationships between mother and child, says Dr. Chun. Most of her patients have mothers who are either overly protective or too neglectful. Dr. Chun says that from birth to six years of age is a critical period in the mental and developmental growth of a child.
“If the child deviates two or three years during this vital period in the child’s life, then he or she will have difficulties socializing,” she says.
That is why therapy is usually divided between a 40-minute session with the child and 10 minutes of counseling with the mother. “In the course of therapy, the mother sometimes breaks down and cries because she realizes she has been either too domineering or too neglectful of her child,” Dr. Chun says.
Generally, art therapy takes a minimum of three months and can take as long as a year. But some parents are too hasty to draw conclusions about the impact of therapy and quit before they should.
Dr. Chun sighs and says this is what is most frustrating about her work, but says that some find the 50,000 won ($50) per hour fee a burden.
It’s not just the clients who are benefiting from art therapy. Those studying art therapy find the training is beneficial to themselves.
Lee Tae-hee, a student studying art therapy at the Institute, says she learned much while training.
“I discovered a lot about myself when I underwent art therapy,” says Ms. Lee. “Art enables you to lessen the gap between the real you and the perceived you. That’s therapeutic itself.”
Adults who seek art therapy usually prefer to talk with the therapist instead of concentrating on artwork. Children who come to therapy sessions with their mothers are told they are taking after-school art classes. They are unaware that this is therapy, lest they show aversion to it.
“Adolescents in puberty can be extremely sensitive about getting therapy,” says Dr. Chun. Clients are told to draw pictures or create other forms of art under diverse emotional situations such as when they are angry, sad, happy and tired.
“For the latter two cases,” says Dr. Chun, “it’s not about communicating better with others, but about accepting death. Art can help one relive memories, and this process can be emotionally healing for those expecting the end.”
Experts say that art can help older people delay the process of losing memory, especially for Alzheimer’s patients. “As they draw pictures, the elderly tend to reminisce about the past, which helps to prolong their memories,” says Ju Li-ae of Seoul Women’s University.
by Choi Jie-ho