Going through losses after natural disasters can affect a child’s mind greatly. The Red Pencil tackles this by using art as therapy.
When we think of disaster relief, it’s usually first-aid tents and water stations that come to mind rather than booths with crayons and coloured pencils. However, when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, sure enough, art therapists from The Red Pencil organisation were on hand with art materials to help put traumatised children on the road to healing through creative expression. We spoke to Belgian expat and The Red Pencil founder, Laurence Vandenborre, about the benefits of art therapy, the humanitarian project’s goals and its upcoming missions.
A way to help people manage their physical and emotional problems by using creative activities to express emotions, art therapy provides a way to come to terms with emotional conflicts, increase self-awareness, and articulate unspoken and often unconscious concerns about their illnesses or traumatic experiences.
Though she has long had a love for art, Laurence, who moved to Singapore in 1997, didn’t become interested in art therapy until a psychologist friend introduced her to the idea in a four-night awareness workshop about the practice.
“I attended those evening workshops and was immediately convinced of the power of art therapy, not only to help express and release what needed to be ‘said’, but also to gently reveal the part of ourselves we may not be aware of, and to empower us towards a happier, more joyful, more hopeful future,” Laurence says.
From there, she went on to take classes at Lasalle College of the Arts, training in the use of arts and media, as well as psychological and therapeutic approaches, before earning her master’s degree in 2006.
“This type of therapy is important because it gives people an alternative way to express what they need to without words; art therapy is particularly appropriate in any situation where people find it difficult to verbalise what they are going through and how they feel about it,” Laurence says.
How long does it normally take for children to respond to this type of therapy? According to Laurence, no time at all.
“All too often, children don’t have the vocabulary to express how they feel and what they’re going through. On the contrary, drawing is such a natural way of expression for children,” she says. “Sometimes, when parents struggle with their little ones’ issues, they bravely go from one professional to the other, unable to find a way to understand what’s going on – much less find a solution. But, as art therapy puts the creative act of drawing at the centre of the therapeutic process, very often the issue manifests itself quite rapidly, which then gives the art therapist a chance to address it verbally with the child through the drawing. This indirect way of discussing the problem is much more comfortable for the child, as he or she can talk about what’s going on in the drawing, and not in his or her own life, which may feel a bit threatening.”
She adds, “Often, for an art therapist, it’s more of a challenge to work with adults, who are more guarded. Bringing the adult back into the spontaneity of drawing like a child, without any aesthetical purpose and without any judgement, is often part of the early art therapeutic work.”
The Red Pencil
Though Laurence soon became passionate about starting her own humanitarian project, it took about eight years for her dream to finally come to fruition.
“After the tsunami in 2004, having worked at Raffles Hospital with French-speaking patients who had been caught in the waves, I wished to find a way to reach out to many more than just those I could see myself. It was then that the seed idea of a foundation was sown,” she says. “However, I was still fulfilling some professional duties that didn’t allow me time to pursue the dream. It wasn’t until 2010, when I established a private practice in my studio and could more easily organise my own schedule that I decided to dedicate some of my time to this project. I had no idea, at the time, where it would bring me.”
In 2011, Laurence officially founded The Red Pencil, with the key mission of bringing the benefits of art therapy to children, adults and families in overwhelming situations for which they have no words to convey their pain – particularly those afflicted by long-term hospitalisation, disability and trauma.
“We use art as a means to bring individuals joy, creativity, relaxation, fun and hope, and as a way for communities to bond and find new resources,” Laurence says. “This is all the more powerful when individuals or groups have been challenged by difficult life circumstances, like natural disasters or conflicts.”
Today, The Red Pencil Singapore has not only a full-time art therapy service at KK Hospital, but also over 150 registered art therapists doing clinical work with children, families and the elderly – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact, The Red Pencil is partnered with more than 45 local organisations, plus a number of overseas programmes.
“One of our main partners is the Singapore Red Cross (SRC). When a disaster happens in the region, the SRC sends intervention teams, and The Red Pencil art therapists join their rescue missions to give psychosocial support to children and their families,” says Laurence. “Overseas, we have individual projects in many countries, including Japan, China, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. We have relationships with Doctors without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), Caritas Humanitarian Aid & Relief Initiatives, and Art in All of Us, with whom we organise exchanges of drawings by children all over the world, allowing them not only to find joy and a positive distraction in the creative process, but also giving them a chance to make new friendships with children elsewhere in the world. In doing so, their minds are able to travel beyond the walls of their hospital wards, or whatever they are going through.”
Additionally, the organisation regularly sets up creative workshops at museums, art fairs and community events to promote its objectives; the canvases created by participants at these creative workshops are auctioned off on The Red Pencil’s website, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting the foundation, which also works to provide scholarships, overseas training, research opportunities and financial support for art therapy students.
In 2015 already, art therapy teams have travelled to Sri Lanka to work with underprivileged kids, teens and adults, and to West Bengal in India to work with disadvantaged children; for this month, missions are planned to a Burmese orphanage, a Nepalese shelter and other projects in Thailand and New Zealand.
When planning foreign assignments, The Red Pencil tries, where possible, to split each mission into three ten-day visits over the course of nine to twelve months – sending the same team each time in order to provide maximal long-term and meaningful support. Central to each of these missions is the encouragement of “visual journalling – an art diary with sketches or mixed media that captures inner thoughts visually rather than verbally. “We encourage ‘visual journalling’ as a way of continuing to take care of oneself when The Red Pencil art therapists head to other missions,” says Laurence. “Our hope and intention is to make visual journaling a norm in family centres, schools, corporate organisations, prisons and even at home.”
Also fundamental to each mission is the implementation of The Red Pencil’s “train the trainer” programme, which educates caregivers in the benefits of art therapy; a thorough understanding helps to ensure that therapeutic art can continue long after the therapists have left, thus creating what Laurence calls “a multiplier effect”.
When it comes to choosing overseas missions, Laurence says that while it may be tough to turn down an assignment, it ultimately comes down to the safety of her team.
“The Red Pencil is rapidly expanding, which is great. We were recently approached to intervene in refugee camps in Lebanon, and we are working there in partnership with one of the big humanitarian organisations. But, of course, the safety of our art therapists is of utmost importance,” she explains. “Therefore, our team carefully reviews each mission before embarking on it.”
Missions planned for this year include visits to a women and children’s refugee camp in Kurdistan, a women’s shelter in Cambodia, a school in Lebanon and a hospital in Haiti, along with many other assignments in Australia, Indonesia, Africa and the Middle East. A team of therapists is also continually travelling to Nepal to work with earthquake survivors.
“In view of the dramatic circumstances in Nepal, The Red Pencil is committed to being there for the long term to help those affected find relief through artistic expression,” Laurence says. “We’re confident that it will bring them healing and empowerment.”
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s June 2015 issue.