For Foundation Studies alumna Wan Shing Lang (Shing), art isn’t just visual, it’s a form of healing. Here she explains how an unrelenting desire to create (and a touch of stubbornness) led to a fulfilling career as an art therapist.
When Shing Lang started her Foundation Studies year at Trinity, her mum pushed her down the path of chemical engineering – a ‘good industry’ from the perspective of a conservative parent. As a natural-born creative, Shing’s heart was tugging to doing something artistic, but she obliged and enrolled in physics. ‘Then I failed,’ laughs Shing. ‘When it came to maths it turned out my brain couldn’t cope,’ she says. ‘But I scored really well in all my art subjects, so decided it was time to live life the way I wanted.’
But that wasn’t as simple as she thought. The next challenge was finding a well-paying job in the art world that would appease her family. ‘There’s the perception that if you’re going to do something art related you’ve got to be an artist, and become … what’s the term they use? … a starving artist,’ says Shing. Her family was concerned, and in an attempt to negotiate, her mum put architecture on the table. Shing still wasn’t sold – the idea of sitting behind a desk all day didn’t appeal. Her mum suggested interior design as an alternative.
Sensing she would have more freedom to express herself as an interior designer, Shing enrolled in a course, only to find technology suppressing her creativity. ‘I was excited at first, but I couldn’t handle the stress with all the software they were using,’ says Shing. ‘I felt it wasn’t what I signed up for.’ Nevertheless, she persevered with interior design for four years.
At the point her mother hoped she’d find a job, Shing threw in her imminent design career and took a gap year. It was evident Shing’s creative passion was lying dormant without a satisfying outlet. ‘[At that point] I was going through a lot in my life and art was something that kept me going in some ways,’ she recalls. ‘I then stumbled on a book called “Art as Therapy” by philosopher Alain de Botton.’ Although Shing admits the author’s idea of art therapy is quite different to her current field, it opened up a new way of thinking about art. As someone who had always been curious about people, Shing saw the dots connecting.
‘Art therapy is really a perfect match between psychology and creativity, because it’s an understanding of both worlds,’ she says. The shoe finally fit, so Shing enrolled in a Master of Art Therapy at La Trobe University, graduating in 2017. She now works at Art Stop Studio in Melbourne as an art therapist.
Here Shing helps treat a range of conditions, both physical and mental, by helping people tap into their creative side through drawing, painting and other craft activities.
‘Through the process of art making, we help people gain insight into what their issues are, or what they are trying to process in their life.’
The process is not so much about technique or interpreting the final product, but the process of creation itself. ‘Often we leave the interpretation to the clients,’ she says. ‘We want to empower them to gain their own insight through the art, and we don’t want to take the power away from them.’
While art therapy has its naysayers, particularly when used as an assessment tool, Shing believes there’s a time and place for artistic expression along the healing pathway. She’s also got plenty of success stories to support her practice.
A client with Alzheimer’s disease stands out, who Shing was introduced to after other treatments proved unsuccessful. ‘They [her family] knew the diagnosis, but couldn’t find proper care for her,’ Shing explains. ‘The lady started coming to my art therapy group, but just wandered around and occasionally scribbled, as she claimed she didn’t know how to draw.
‘I started to spend time with her over 3-4 months and she began to realise the art therapy room was a safe place for her. We then saw a shift in her behaviour – she started drawing, became calmer, had an improved attention span and wandered less. At first, she would get up every 10 minutes, but after a few months she could sit in a room for an hour or more.’ Shing credits the creation of a safe space as reason for the switch.
Interestingly, this is where Shing’s interior design studies loop into the mix, proving her wobbly career path wasn’t fruitless. ‘Interior design is all about psychology,’ she explains. ‘It’s about designing spaces that help people move around comfortably, and that affects their psychology and mental movements. My interior design background helps me create spaces that are safe and suitable for my clients.’
Shing’s story is an example of the common struggle between personal and family interests, finding financial stability, and recognising different ideas of what a ‘good’ job really is. While her career journey felt disheartening at times, when Shing looks back, she can see how it confirmed her passion and helped develop her skill set. ‘It took me a little bit longer to get where I needed to be, but it worked out in the end,’ she smiles.
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