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Find Healing In Older Years

Reflections by Lee Sze-Chin

Interviewed: 2019

From book: 36 Hats

In this series entitled Touring Natives, an artist collaborator and I explored snapshot aesthetics made popular by the photographer Martin Parr. We looked at the idea of “going on holiday” in our own country, and tried to place ourselves as markers of history alongside places in Singapore that were made redundant in the face of redevelopment and gentrification. Through exhibitions and discussions with friends and members of the public in Singapore, we chanced upon a shared understanding and awareness of national sentiment pertaining to nostalgia and collective memories.

ZicoZico was made while I was a graduate art therapy student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a foreign national, I empathized with the experiences of migrant clients at my art therapy internship site. They expressed that “home” is not only a physical place; it is a safe space as well. Through their expressions of homesickness, I learned the importance of developing mental and emotional resilience. This video explores those feelings for home through the imagined life and adventures of my cat resident, Zico, while he waited for his mistress to bring him back home after a one-year sabbatical in Singapore. I hope the work brings comfort to others who are away from home.

A Silver Arts 2017 - Community Arts ProjectA Silver Arts 2017 - Community Arts Project In Virtually Home, senior participants were invited to consider unique places that they had encountered in Singapore, and to plan a tour based on their experiences. They were asked to consider how they defined aspects of their own neighbourhoods. The workshops culminated in a sharing session of their “Virtually Home” journeys. These were stories that narrated and celebrated intriguing and unique personal experiences; through them, the participants were able to share a little bit about themselves and their interests virtually and experientially with a wider audience.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to hear from Lee Sze-Chin, a pioneer of using integrated technologies in his approach, particularly to helping seniors find healing and meaning in their older years.

Sze-Chin is an artist, art therapist and art educator. He has worked in diverse settings, delivered numerous presentations and facilitated workshops for medical, educational and social service professionals. Sze-Chin’s recent research focuses on the impact of digital technologies on social, emotional and psychological wellbeing. He has been examining the use of affordable virtual and digital tools for engaging in immersive experiences. Sze-Chin believes that these technologies can promote creative self-expression, and stimulate the [re]construction of new meanings, narratives and identities.

Could you provide a brief background about your life journey and what brought to becoming an art therapist?

If someone had asked me back in my primary (elementary) school days about my future aspirations, a career in art therapy would not have come to mind. I first came across the use of the term “art therapy” when my secondary school art teachers at The Chinese High School interviewed me for an overseas art camp. My teachers looked at my involvement with Co-Curricular Activity Groups as well as my interests in art and music, and they asked me if I had heard of art or music therapy. I told them that I had not come across those disciplines and they briefly mentioned that it might be something I could consider in the future. This was the discussion in which the first seeds of interest in art therapy were sown.

I became aware of the therapeutic benefits of art therapy when I attended an introductory art therapy course in 1999 whilst I was studying for my undergraduate fine art degree at Goldsmiths College in London. That was my first contact with art therapy and though it lasted only a week, it left a deep impression on me. The notion that there was more to art than just an end product furthered my interest in art therapy. I could identify strongly with this concept, and it can perhaps be attributed to the fact that in my body of work, I have more frequently explored the process than the outcome of the art work; likewise in art therapy the process of art making is often considered more important than the final creation.

In dealing with the themes in my artwork I have regularly experimented with different modes of presentation, ranging from traditional to new media incorporating the use of photography, video and performance. As an art teacher, this approach to art making is something that I have shared with my students and I have often challenged them to experiment and be open to many different ways of creating art. For these students, I observed that art making can be a critical and reflexive exercise. On top of that, I was able to witness first-hand how art making was often character-building and a process of self-discovery for them. In a way you could also say that the process was therapeutic for these students.

Whilst teaching in Singapore, I came across articles that mentioned art therapists who worked within the medical model of psychiatry. This medical aspect intrigued me and I became interested in understanding more about the physical, mental and emotional needs of clients in the healthcare setting. In 2009, I was presented with the opportunity to study a two-year accelerated diploma course in nursing at Nanyang Polytechnic and I took up the challenge as it meant that I would be able to work with and help individuals of various ages and cultural backgrounds. The two years of nursing school and attachments at hospitals gave me additional insights into the needs of patients in Singapore.

In 2012, I was offered a job to teach art in Hong Kong at the Singapore International School (Hong Kong). I accepted the job and besides tutoring secondary school students, I was involved in volunteer work with patients in hospitals as well as the poor and needy in Hong Kong. In applying my prior knowledge and skills to my work in Hong Kong, I realized that my experiences as an art teacher, practitioner, nurse and volunteer worker would provide me with a good foundation for art therapy. It made me more determined to pursue art therapy, as I wanted to provide an alternative approach to meeting the mental and emotional needs of clients, beyond the use of drugs.

Are there any people in your life that have inspired you to become the person you are today?

My parents are my role models. Whenever I am asked why I choose to take less journeyed paths, I attribute it to my parents’ wisdom.

Often, parents wish for their child to be safe, healthy and to live comfortably. As their only child, my parents do not wish any lesser for me. However, more than a comfortable life, my parents place foremost importance in finding one’s purpose in life. As such, they have always emphasized on experiencing widely and suspending judgment until one is worthier. In naming me 思进. (progressive in thought), they expressed their belief in experimentation and innovation. In supporting me to choose art because it is, in their words, more ‘冷门’ (unusual) , they proclaimed that it is alright to be different. In accepting my career switch from art education to nursing, they taught me it is never too late to learn new things. In promising me nothing while encouraging me to pursue art therapy with my limited financial resources, they taught me the value of taking risks and being personally invested in my passion.

While I have gone about a most circuitous route in finding my passion, I see how in this manner, the dots in my experiences are joining up. I also note how I am well placed to speak from multiple fields and to bring diverse communities together. As such, I would not ask for any lesser. I am therefore deeply grateful to my parents for bracing their hearts to allow their child to always choose paths where no future is in sight yet. I hope to embody their lessons in my future endeavors.

As for art therapy, do you see it’s usefulness for participants? Are there differences in effectiveness between individual and group therapy settings?

Yes, for art therapy, I believe in the use of art media, the creative process, and/or the resulting artwork to improve or restore a client’s functioning, and his or her sense of personal well-being.

I think it is equally effective in both individual and group therapy settings. In the hospital settings that I work in, I think that the clients benefit from both. In individual therapy, they get to explore and gain more insight about themselves. In group therapy, there is the opportunity to socialize and be supported by their fellow participants. Additionally, they can further reflect on their interactions with their peers, as well as their relationships within and outside the group.

How can the role of technologies be best utilized in the clinical art therapy?

I think that digital media and technology can complement and enhance the overall artistic tools available to clients, allowing them to explore diverse and equally meaningful forms of artistic expression. I also think that digital media and technology works best in clinical art therapy when it is integrated with the use of physical media.

What drew you to focus your work on seniors? And what brought you to utilize advanced technologies with them, are there any particular technologies most applicable to seniors.

Singapore is particularly concerned about its aging population, and it calls it the “silver tsunami”. By 2030, one in five people in the city-state will be over 60. As such, there are a lot of resources dedicated to support the seniors, and some of these programs / grants focus on encouraging seniors to age creatively and to enrich their well-being through the arts. That was how some of the opportunities to work with seniors came about for me when I returned to Singapore from the US in 2016. Over time, I realized that I am very happy working with this population as there is a lot to gain from their wisdom and experience(s).

Additionally, my art practice focuses on themes of culture, memory, and nostalgia, and my body of work leverages technology as a tool to question memory and time. Therefore, I am comfortable exploring and experimenting with digital technologies. When I saw how interested my own parents were in learning some of these new media, I thought that I would give it a try with other older adults.

I think Virtual Reality (VR), in particular, is very applicable to my work with seniors, especially for those who have limited mobility. It can support and amplify their powers of imagination, and “transport” them to various digital spaces. Through the conversations that I have had with clients after they experienced the use of VR, I have often noticed that their moods improve as a result of visiting places virtually, and having a safe space during subsequent sessions to process feelings that might have come up for them during the VR session(s).

From your clinical experiences, is there anything you have personally gained or learned from your client/participants?

Some of my clients in art therapy, as well as participants in my art projects, have shown me that people feel empowered and flourish when they are given the freedom to make their own choices. I have noticed how spirited and happy they can be when they have found their own voice and are given the opportunity to share their views in their own unique way.

Having worked in multiple countries, both Eastern and Western, are there any differences you see in how art therapy is viewed and/or practiced?

In Singapore, some of the art therapy clients I work with, especially the older adults, have a tendency to suppress their negative feelings or hide their negative experiences as it can be viewed as embarrassing or even shameful. When they can be encouraged or supported to make art in the art therapy sessions, they are able to express themselves in a subtle, non-verbal manner that is more socially accepted. This helps them to explore their feelings in a safe way; reflect / focus on what they find meaningful; and possibly further assist them in problem-solving creatively.

As we finish the interview, are there any quotes or words of wisdom that have inspired your journey, whether from a client, author, or from anyone else?

We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.

- Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 7: 1966-1974

Every journey we take allows us to be more accepting of the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary experiences that happen to us. For me, this quote encapsulates my own life journey in which I have constantly desired to keep learning from the people I meet and the experiences I encounter – these dots eventually connect and shape me into who I am today.

For future clinical practitioners, do you have any general guidance or recommendations for them in developing their clinical approach?

Personally, I think that it is very important to gain experiences engaging with different populations. One would probably be able to develop sensitivity in working with different clients in that way, and it will help to cultivate a person-centered clinical approach that is respectful and empathetic.

Thank you for coming…

This interview is from our book 36 Hats.

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