An Interview with Phuong Nguyen: The Power of Art Therapy
Hannah Chew, Managing Editor for Arts Help recently spoke with Phuong Nguyen about her experience as an Art Therapist and involvement with our Art for Health event. Held on March 15, 2021, Art for Health: A Virtual Art Therapy Experience was a free interactive virtual workshop encouraging reflection and personal growth among attendees. The following interview reflects on such themes of mental health and well-being, personal growth, and accessibility.
Tell me a little bit about your background and the work you do.
First, thank you for having me. I really appreciate Arts Help reaching out. I am an artist and art therapist. I work with communities of color through an art therapy lens. In Ontario, art therapy is psychotherapy, so I work within that framework.
Can you tell me how you got into art therapy?
I first started as an artist. I was a practicing artist for quite a few years, and then I got into art therapy for a few different reasons. I didn't feel like the art I was creating was making the impact that I wanted it to, because at the end of the day, the art world is a capitalist, money-driven place. I wanted to make more of an impact on people's lives directly with the skills that I already had. Mental health is one of the big things that go undiscussed, and when it started affecting some of the people that I love in my life including my family, the support really wasn't there. It pushed me into wanting to pursue something with purpose.
Can you talk about how your skills and work experience you had as an artist have transferred into your current practice?
Being an artist, first, things are not black and white. How can we be comfortable with this limbo state… that might be necessary to get into a space to do art therapy safely. Ideas of perfectionism are pretty much thrown out the window, as an artist in a lot of ways. You can't really make good work without making a lot of mistakes first. That's a part of discovering what you do as an artist, where you want to go. Learning to be kind to myself and having an understanding about the artistic process helped me navigate getting into art therapy and working in a therapeutic lens.
Can you explain the goals, the practices, of art therapy?
Art therapy in Ontario is a form of psychotherapy used for mental wellness. You don't have to be good at art to do or get into art therapy. Very similar to talk therapy, we talk about the artwork and about what we make. What is surprising about the artwork is what comes up that you didn't expect. It’s a great way to express your feelings in a way that might be difficult to express in words. I work with many communities of color, and we talk about our feelings and individual struggles with mental health and trauma.
Individuals aren’t always familiar with putting their feelings into words, and art provides a great way to bridge that. We can make work about our feelings in a safe space that provides more freedom. It makes it more tangible and a bit easier to navigate. This is my experience anyway. The materials themselves can be self-soothing. I once worked with a group of seniors in Vancouver, and coloring was all they wanted to do. It was relaxing and soothing as a medium on its own.
You mentioned that it is very much material-based for people who don't necessarily have access to an art therapist or access to art materials. What are ways people can apply the same principles in their own lives at home? How do we transmit practices that are difficult to not do in person to the virtual world?
Just someone making time with intention to give themself space to process and think about these feelings and feel whatever they need to, is important. Whether that is in the form of playing an instrument, sitting down and listening to an album, sitting down and not doing anything, or sitting down and making artwork. Whatever the product of that intention is it's important to give yourself space and time.
For young people or people with very demanding lives, this can be really hard to do as it is. If you can do that, it’s a plus regardless of whatever medium it takes. Making artwork on its own, whether you have a pencil or a pen, can be self-soothing. You never know what might come up. I’m not saying there is a guide or a dictionary where it's like this scribble means that or this symbol means that, in art therapy, because that's not the case. We don't psychoanalyze and take apart artwork. But maybe you make some artwork, and you look back on it and consider how it is different from the work you create when in a different mood or a different headspace, and you’re more open about what you make and how that might inform you.
How do you perceive the relationship between art, mental health awareness, and mental health activists?
Mental health and art have a long history. Art therapists aren’t there to cure an individual's mental illness, we’re there to be allies rather than doctors. Art and music have always connected to being human and embracing our imperfections, curious natures, and growth. I think it's hard to separate what we make from who we are.
What has been your inspiration for getting into this type of work and investing your artistic skill with art therapy?
There are so many people in the world that influence our decisions in our lives and our direction. I can't say there’s a single person, but I've been grateful to have had multiple people that informed and inspired me.
Can you tell me about your involvement with our Art For Health event?
I was reached out by Arts Help to be a part of their Instagram event that had to do with art and mental wellness. They brought me on to consult and to talk, not so much about myself, but about my practice, what I do, and why I do it. I made some really nice connections that day.
With events like this, the Internet and social media plays a huge part in getting people involved and raising awareness. In your practice, has the Internet and social media been helpful or in any ways hurtful to art therapy and mental health in general?
The answer is always complicated, and it’s always both (helpful and hurtful). Social media has been very detrimental to mental health in different facets of our everyday life. Online you’ll find a lot of simplified answers when it comes to improving your mental health. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially with social media being more accessible to individuals than therapy. I can see that it might be easier to follow a mental health geared account rather than to seek help.
On the plus side, there’s a lot of content out there now that talks about mental health. Through this, we can help people feel less stigmatized. Stigma is big. There’s public stigma, where the society we live in might make it difficult and increases barriers to accessing help for ourselves. There’s also a lot of self-stigma, where we put up barriers and get in our way. With social media being so much more accessible, I’m hoping that will help in reducing stigmatization.
Systematic change has to happen within the system. Getting access to mental health is difficult and it is very expensive. Just because it’s being talked about more doesn’t mean that systematically it’s accessible. I hope that there can be enough of a push for genuine and effective systematic change.
Do you have any recommendations of resources, whether online or in person, for people that want to get into art therapy or are interested in looking at how they engage with art in a way that also engages with their mental well-being?
In Canada, we have the Canadian Art Therapy Association. They are the regulating body that raises standards and advances art therapy. It’s important to do your research and not listen to movies where art therapy can be misrepresented. There’s a lot of research available online. More than ever, art therapy is becoming more accessible. Don’t be afraid to do your research and look into things, just make sure to be critical about whatever you’re looking at.
Lastly, what do you love most about your work?
I love a lot of things about my work. It just comes down to being able to work with people who know they can trust me. People hold their vulnerabilities so close to them, and I’m grateful to be able to be present and trusted with all of these feelings that are so important. My clients inspire me, and I learn a lot from them. It really keeps me going.More information about Phuong Nguyen and her practice as both an artist and art therapist can be found by visiting her website. Additional mental health resources can be found here.