Originally from Belgium, Laurence Vandenborre is the Founder and Managing Director of The Red Pencil, an international arts therapy humanitarian foundation whose mission is to bring the benefits of arts therapy to children, adults and families on their pathway to well-being, with a particular attention to those facing overwhelming life circumstances, such as natural disasters, conflict zones, long-term hospitalisations, human trafficking and abuses.

Laurence is a registered arts therapist, with a background in professional counselling and life coaching. She served as a Board Director of Very Special Arts, Singapore, and is a member of The Art Therapy Association of Singapore and The Australian and New Zealand Art Therapy Association. Laurence holds a Master of Arts in Germanic Philology from the University of Louvain la Neuve in Belgium and a Master Degree in Art Therapy from Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore.

We were very fortunate to get the opportunity to speak to such an inspiring woman and learn about the great work that her charity is doing around the globe.  Read our interview below.

What are your key responsibilities as Founder and Managing Director of the Red Pencil?

My main responsibility is the strategy of the organisation. In a pioneering field, an organization can grow in many different directions.  I safeguard the development of the Red Pencil and the key to that is professionalism. My responsibilities also include overseeing all other aspects, such as operations, marketing and communications, and fundraising.  I am also in charge of the professional development of the general managers of each entity. As time goes by, I will keep my strategic role and maintain the expertise that we are developing day by day. We have built everything from nothing; procedures, assessments, evaluations, mission logistics, all aspects of safety and ensuring we have the best art therapists. That creative process and capacity to review and evaluate all the time is very exciting.  It is never set. Everyday brings its own level of creativity. I am always wondering how we can do things differently and better.

How does the Red Pencil aim to help people in Singapore?

The Red Pencil (Singapore) is predominantly for low-income families who are rather easy to select because, at a government level, they have their own demographic group.  We bring arts therapy to people who would not have the means to pay for it themselves because they earn below a certain level of monthly income. We access those potential beneficiaries through hospitals, family centres, shelters, homes, schools and prisons. We also offer art therapy scholarships as well as arts therapy sessions.

What have you observed about human nature in your experience at the Red Pencil?

The commonality of humanity; whether you are considered high or low society, it does not give you the privilege of more happiness or peace. Challenges come to all of us and make us, at times, emotional and vulnerable with a deep wish to care for ourselves.  People need to take care of themselves, to take care of others and the community.

I have also learnt the power of community work.  In the Lebanon, on the border of Syria, you work in refugee camps and there is no way to distinguish one person from another.  What makes them survive is solidarity.

When I started the Red Pencil, I was at a stage in my life when things were running smoothly, then I started something new which resulted in so many positive outcomes and a few real challenges too! Nothing happens without some challenges along the road – it’s part of the process and builds the resilience you need to put into it. To succeed, you have to tell yourself, no matter what I encounter on my path, I will make it happen because it’s not about me, it’s about those we serve. People sometimes react to the word ‘serve’. It comes from my Catholic background but it makes sense with a project like the Red Pencil.  I often think about what people need and how I can adapt myself for them.

The Red Pencil, Lombok, Indonesia, 2019

What do you mean by your slogan, ‘rescue the child, save the adult’?

Whether it is an actual child or the child within the adult, when we go through difficult times, it is the child within us that gets hurt and needs attention and care.  That’s the part in everyone of us that needs to be healed before we can rebuild our lives. If the child within you is hurt by the traumas of the past, then you will not be able to be a responsible adult for yourself and for your community. We need to make sure we can restore their mental health so that kindness, compassion, gentleness, making a contribution to society and solidarity can naturally emerge. When I used to work at Raffles Hospital, I noticed that when a child was not doing well, it was the whole family who suffered; the trauma the child was experiencing, shook everyone involved. But after a few months, when the child was doing better, the whole family did better. It impacts the whole family dynamic.  For all of them to be happy, everyone needs to be taken care of.

How do people come to you?  

In Singapore, other charities, humanitarian organizations and service providers such as hospitals, shelters, schools, prisons, family and corporate centres have come to know us and contact us directly to receive professional arts therapy.  For our overseas humanitarian missions, partner organizations find us online and contact us. After a thorough due diligence, we organize an intervention together.

What tends to happen in an arts therapy session?

Arts therapy mainly addresses the needs of those experiencing difficult or traumatic experiences, which they cannot verbalise. The arts therapist will invite them to create an art piece (a drawing, a collage or some clay work) that is agreed on or suggested by the patient. The art piece, which is not created for its aesthetic value but for the spontaneous expression of what the person needs to convey, becomes the centre of the dialogue between the patient and the arts therapist. The role of the arts therapist can be compared to midwifery because they gently encourage, give comfort and guide. However, the therapist does not interpret for the patient, who needs to make sense of their own creation. The therapists make sure that by the end of the session the patient has achieved a certain level of rest and peace until the next one provides further healing and progress.  A therapy process is always a little unpredictable, as the therapist does not know where the patient needs to go at the beginning so it requires flexibility and professionalism to guide them towards the best for him or herself. At The Red Pencil, we often compare arts therapy to an onion; the best part is at the centre but you have to remove all the layers to reach the heart of it. All the layers are the creations, which one by one allow the patient to get to the core of the self, getting freer from past situations and moving towards a new and hopeful future.

Some people say they can’t draw.  That is good! We don’t want our patients to focus on the aesthetics but on the emotions they are going through. What is truly important is the creative process your patient is experiencing when he or she creates. We like it when people are spontaneous. Even a small drawing can be talked about for an hour.  When people really do not want to draw at the beginning of the process, I have compiled books with images and they can select a picture that to appeal to them. This is a first way to connect to images and symbolism. An arts therapist will ask very open questions and be non-judgmental and the patient will leave each session with a take-away to reflect.  It is always a moving moment when the patients start to choose materials and make art choices, showing some new level of comfort in the sessions and independence in their creative process. Colour and symbols are important as they give a lot of meaning to the creation, however, an arts therapist doesn’t interpret the drawings for their patients, which would be intrusive and even dangerous. It is a sensitive profession and one of the most efficient in dealing with deep-seated pain and trauma. We purposely ask questions that are not leading, so the patient is free to find their own interpretations to their own creations.  We don’t want people to feel like they have been led into something.

To illustrate this, let me give you the example of a female patient that I had the chance to work with at Changi Women’s Prison.  After a few months of arts therapy, the patient made a painting all in green.  As usual, we then put the creation at a distance, to get perspective and reduce some of the emotional charge, which is soothing. So, she looked at the painting in silence and commented after a while that it had so much green in it, which she interpreted as having a lot of envy towards her mother.  In Chinese culture, green is assimilated with ‘envy’, whereas in Europe, it is synonymous with nature and growth. This explains how it is important that an arts therapist does not provide an interpretation and allows the patient to find to their own sense of meaning. In that case, if I had told her what green means for me, it would have taken my patient away from where she needed to be.

How our patients draw, where they place persons or symbols in a drawing or painting is also important. The overall impression and feeling that exudes from a drawing also might say something about it.  The art therapist can have a general feel for their creation but this needs to be confirmed by the person who made the art piece. Patients at times can also put the arts therapist in the position of authority, but this has to be handled carefully, to make sure the patient is always in charge of their own life and interprets their creations according to their own values and needs. Another role of the therapist is to make them feel safe, empower them and ask them where they want to go. It is all about respect.  Art therapists have to be cautious because you are in charge of the well being, healing and recovery of a patient and responsible for bringing life and positive changes to that persons experiences. You are making sure that they are going towards life and choices that benefit them and their community.

The Red Pencil, Kurdistan

Why did you choose art therapy as a career?

Life brought me arts therapy and the Red Pencil as a blessing. I still vividly remember the first time an Australian psychologist said the words, ‘arts therapy’ to me. I had never heard those words before and I was curious to know more, because I had trained as a counsellor and I had been painting for years.  I was immediately intrigued and attended an initial workshop, which convinced me at once of its powerful benefits, how gently revealing it can be and a soothing way of letting go of past pain to envision a new future. This initial experience of arts therapy was such a revelation for me. Suddenly, there was this marvellous process that combined the two things I was passionate about; art and helping others. I didn’t know it existed as a profession, so it was a great joy for me to practice it in different environments.  Then the idea of The Red Pencil came afterwards as a way of sustaining my own experience of arts therapy.

What do you love most about your job?

Waking up every day and thinking that I have another day with the Red Pencil!

More seriously, what is truly important is that your patients or your beneficiaries in overseas missions start getting better and emerging from whatever they have been going through towards building a new future. Arts therapy brings change and creates more life. That is the driver that I love most about my job. I truly believe that arts therapy can make the world better at all levels of society because it is a healing process, that removes anything negative or dysfunctional, to grow towards new possibilities, new perspectives.

Other than being a trained arts therapist, what is your personal relationship with art?  Do you paint yourself?

I was a serious painter years ago. I started art in Paris, which is conducive to it.  Back then, I had the time to attend classes and I enjoyed that. When we came to Singapore, I continued painting by myself and also regularly with a group of friends. My passion is mainly portraiture, I have been doing paintings, inspired by all cultures.  My time schedule is largely taken up by The Red Pencil these days but I hope to resume my painting and music delights this year.

How do you care for yourself and your team?

Self-care is tremendously important as it is the fuel which permits you to move on in your responsibilities.

My husband and I like to do things together, like travelling, and there are some places we always enjoy going to tremendously.  All of our children are grown up now and they work around the world so we have more time together, yet we meet our children several times a year in Singapore or in a holiday place where we can all be together.

Besides that, I love exercising, meditation, breathing exercises and writing because they don’t require a lot of time, unlike painting.  Sometimes I need to work during the weekend so I practice things that are less time consuming.

Another important thing I do is keep my own visual journal. It is a short daily exercise to express how I feel and to gain relief and insight. Art therapists teach this to their patients and we do it ourselves too for self-care. Basically, we gather some simple art materials around us (even oil pastels are good enough) and we look at the colours and see which ones reflect what happens inside us, then draw that without thinking about aesthetics. It is amazing how you much better you feel and it is healthy because you don’t accumulate negative emotions and it helps you to move through different steps in life and forgiveness, by cleansing your emotions.

Just sitting in a favourite place and looking at something you enjoy (it could be a candle, or it could be a landscape) can be soothing and relaxing. Aromatherapy, natural ingredients and a sense of gratitude help too.  Animals and spending time with them is also good too. There are so many simple things that can make you life enjoyable in the present moment!

As for the team, it is a priority to bring a sense of wellbeing to the office and to constantly work towards an overall positive environment where team members are supportive of each other. We want the team to have opportunities to grow professionally and personally and to work reasonable hours towards a good work-life balance. By instilling a passion in what we do so the team can derive job satisfaction from meaningful work that impacts other human beings.

We also encourage flexibility and autonomy in their roles, to give a sense of personal responsibility and freedom to each team member.

The Red Pencil Art Therapy

What are the challenges you regularly face in your profession?

Arts therapy is not recognized globally yet.  Since the onset, The Red Pencil has been a pioneer, which is a joy and a challenge.  Giving evidence of the true impact of our interventions is of utmost importance, therefore we have one person in our team who is dedicated to monitoring and evaluating our missions. Art collectors are often immediately convinced of the righteousness of what we do because they enjoy their own collections and know how much looking at the art they have bought is therapeutic. They can easily imagine how much more powerful it is when patients draw and write what is in their hearts and minds. However, others still see it as an unnecessary luxury, therefore our advocacy for arts therapy and for The Red Pencil’s mission, is still prevalent in everything we do.

As a business, there are a lot of challenges too.  Although we are a non-profit, it does not mean at our standards of professionalism should be less than other organizations. Quite the contrary. It is of paramount importance for the generous people and organizations that support us. to know that The Red Pencil handles all matters in the most ethical ways and that our finances are dedicated entirely to our missions.

Do you get any resistance to art therapy?

Less and less resistance over time. At the start, when we visited family centres in Singapore, we had to convince people to try it so we put a lot of funding into it and we were knocking on doors for a few years, to encourage organizations to experience arts therapy for their beneficiaries.  Once they did, they found it was unique, gentle and yet so powerful. Children often cannot talk because of their lack of vocabulary and adults cannot talk for many other reasons. Therefore, arts therapy fills a necessary gap in the psychosocial field.

Even though it is not always recognized, all cultures adapt to arts therapy well. People from the US and Latin America tend to be extrovert and find a lot of physical relief in visual expression.  Eastern cultures tend to be more introverted and indirect so arts therapy can be great because it responds well to their indirect way of communicating. Family and couples art therapy work is successful too because drawing doesn’t hurt, while words sometimes do so there is a protective aspect to the drawing.

What does arts engagement give people? Are the benefits for adults and children the same or different?

The benefits tend to be the same, although children often truly lack the sophisticated vocabulary to express what they have been through and the emotions that they are experiencing. When you talk to an adult, you actually talk to the child within them.  Once either child or adult have downloaded those images, which potentially bother them inside, a very important step has already been achieved.  Then you can start to rebuild self-esteem and confidence and help them to identify the resources they have and need, internally or externally. You can also nurture empowerment, help them create a new vision and decide what the best decision is now for them and family in the future.  Wherever people come from and whatever they have experienced, it doesn’t have to define them in the future, they can keep the best and leave the rest. Most importantly, everyone can reconnect to the “hero” inside and purposely design what they want to become in the future.

The Red Pencil, parents session

How do you measure the impact of your work here in Singapore?

In our team, we have someone who is dedicated to measurement and evaluation.  We do pre and post assessments for the beneficiaries but also with the organization.  We collect case studies, which give evidence, through their creations, of the development and growth of the patient.

Overseas, we have a three-step mission and evaluation process over about a year. We discovered this when we did a mission with the Singapore Red Cross for the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines. The arts therapist will spend the first two weeks with the beneficiaries to do arts therapy with them and to teach them to help themselves with visual diaries.  They will also train caregivers. The arts therapist then goes home and returns three to four months later for another two weeks with the same beneficiaries. When those relationships have been established, the arts therapist can go deeper into the healing process and continue with the visual diaries and training. Again, three to six months after that, the arts therapist goes back again and brings closure to the beneficiaries and community. At each step, there is an evaluation process that we analyze in a final report once the mission is finished.

Another model we use is a residency where one or two art therapists are welcomed into a school for instance and they will work constantly with the children there for a few months. There again, you have a systematic pre and post assessment of the mission to validate its progress.

A year after a mission is finished, we recontact the partner organization to find out what the beneficiaries have become and how far the impact of our interventions have benefited their lives.  

What’s the process of working with partner organisations?

Preparing a mission normally takes about 6 months and follows a rigorous procedure.

Generally, we are first contacted by an organization and do our due diligence on them.  If we decide that we can work with them in a professional way and share a responsible commitment of the overall mission, including the overall cost of the mission, we send them a needs assessment about the particular community to support and choose a model (either the 3-step programme or the residency).

Then when we start a mission, we create a flyer about it and circulate it to our network of art therapists worldwide. The art therapists apply for the positions and we interview and make our selection of the most suitable applicants.

Finally, we then organize the mission, including the need for the art therapists to write the programme proposal, which is then reviewed by supervisors.

Do you collaborate with any other organisations here and why?

In Singapore, we are in contact with most hospitals, family centres, shelters, homes, schools and prisons.

In an overseas context, we generally work with two categories of partner: local NGO’s and established humanitarian organizations.

How can people help, contribute or donate?

There are two ways; visibility and donation. The more people get to hear about The Red Pencil, the better.  When a crisis happens, people know that the victims need immediate rescue relief, including food, water, shelter, medication and doctors. But victims also need essential psycho-social care so they can emerge, as soon as possible, from the trauma, build their resilience and build a new life. As for the funding, as a humanitarian organization, we can only do as much as the funding permits.  We are cost savvy, and we have a small team, but we also need to rely on very generous hearts.

If you would like to find out more about the work The Red Pencil does, or if you wish to donate, please go to their website here or write to: welcome@redpencil.org.  Worldwide tax deductions available.

If you’d like to read more of our artist interviews, look here and more of our blogposts here.

Creative Arts Social is a not for profit organization. We believe that art is for everyone. We all have the creative potential to understand, connect with and benefit from the arts. For more information about the work we do here.  

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