Arts News Singapore

Art What!: Art therapist Yoko Choi discusses the psychology of art and architecture

Art serves many purposes – for profit, for the next Instagram post, for taking the kids to on a free day. But for some, art could be the difference between having a good day and a terrible day, with its therapeutic qualities. Now, local banking corporation UOB is pushing that agenda of the healing property of art further than ever, with their Art as Therapy series.

Led by professional art therapist and winner of the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year (Most Promising Artist), Yoko Choi is just as passionate about her work in this still little-known field. Born in Hong Kong, Yoko’s love for art therapy started when she volunteered with the Children’s Cancer Foundation in 2013, when she moved to Singapore. Yoko then left her career in architecture, and now works full time in visual arts, serving a few local charity organisations and educational institutions in the capacities of an art therapist, art educator, and visual artist.

“Architecture is one of those fields that is very different in practice from what you study, where the practical world has so many limitations and other duties to deal with. Primarily, I pursued it because my parents wanted me to do something practical to earn a living, and I was a good kid who wanted to just follow their wishes. So I chose a subject that still has an art element,” says Yoko. “I respect architects, because it’s a really tough job that requires a lot of passion to remain there, and I realised that I needed something else instead. That happened when we relocated from Hong Kong to Singapore, where I got another opportunity to rethink my career. I ended up taking another five years to pursue the fine arts and wanted to master my skills.”

Yoko always knew she wanted to transition into art, and even while studying architecture, continued her artistic pursuits in watercolour, practicing when she could. Now, she holds a Master’s degree in Art Therapy from LASALLE College of the Arts, and uses her practice to promote mental wellbeing through the arts and bring therapeutic benefits to more people. “Art therapy has a relatively short history compared to say counselling or psychology, and is only about 70 years old. But even though in Singapore it’s only been around for maybe 20 years, the art scene here is vibrant enough that it can find a place,” she says. “It’s all about ensuring that those on the ground can find a way to make people more receptive to it. It’s the kind of field where people want to see ‘evidence’ of it working, and we need more research into that.”

“Art therapy has been slowly gaining traction in the last few years, and because of that, you can see initiatives coming up at big platforms like Art SG, and turn it into something that people can appreciate, through the right marketing and education,” she adds. “Furthermore, now mental health is on everyone’s agenda, and it’s the best time now to use art to support mental and physical well-being. Even government institutions like NAC and MOH have been doing more to push for art therapy, and it really reaches a very diverse range of beneficiaries.”

Art therapy isn’t just a career for Yoko, but permeates every aspect of her life. “In my own art practice, my inspiration now comes from interactions with my clients, and it makes me think a lot about the human condition. That process was also what led me to win the UOB Painting of the Year in 2016, and I saw it as this healing process for myself, unintentionally. And I think being in art therapy, it’s helped me better understand human experiences, emotions, drive, pain and suffering,” she says. “There are many artists out there who have an agenda with their art, whether as a commission or a clear message they want to bring across. But for therapy, it’s about listening to ourselves rather than having a specific end product in mind, and learning what resonates with us, a process-driven approach that helps us express ourselves via art.”

Yoko’s art practice is primarily rooted in monochromatic pieces. Somehow, Yoko infuses her work with buildings and structures, still containing facets of her experiences with architecture. “I think I struggle with multiple colours, which is why my works are always monochromatic. And even the fact that I was using pen and markers, it’s a leftover from my time in architecture, with the ink used in a very controlled and calculated manner,” she explains. “Architecture definitely also has an effect on our psyche, whether buildings or landscape. I think a lot about when I relocated from Hong Kong to Singapore, and I became so much more positive, no longer feeling as claustrophobic due to space constraints and how everyone was rushing everywhere.”

“So in a way, this external environment affects our internal environment, which can refer to our self-esteem, self-confidence, and concept of self. If you have a strong internal environment, then you can handle a tough external environment, versus being more easily triggered or vulnerable,” she continues. “Architecture didn’t teach me this, but it did teach me about concepts of positive and negative spaces, which I then linked to psychology. It also helped me think about the composition of a picture, and a heightened consciousness as to how to ‘construct’ it to give the eyes space to rest or excitement. I’ve also developed a preference for more zen-like paintings, again, because I’m trying to distance myself from the cramped nature of Hong Kong. I now know I need space to breathe, space to rest mentally.”

As for how she intends to spread the word of art, Yoko wonders if the current generation of children will take to it as easily as the previous one did, with overstimulation from exposure to technology and videos. “It does feel very challenging nowadays, because they’re already so stimulated by social media and videos. It’s important to generate that curiosity and interest through starting dialogues with them, or maybe talk about art and technology,” she says. “But it’s hard, because there’s so much pressure to resist the urge to give them a device, especially after this pandemic where we became so reliant on technology. So it’s important to always integrate it into daily life, and make sure art never becomes sacrificed.”

Evidently, UOB has been supportive of Yoko and her practice, and Yoko has similarly appreciated their role in providing an opportunity and platform for her. “UOB has made so many efforts to promote and raise awareness of art, from the Painting of the Year award to these art initiatives. I don’t think many, if any, other big corporations are dedicating themselves to such a cause on such a large scale,” she says. “They also linked up with education partners, and blends it into their efforts too. There are so many ways they bring art to the people.”

For Yoko, art isn’t just a hobby, but a necessity in our lives. “”All art is political. The moment it is consumed, it has an impact, and that’s why all the more, when you showcase it to the public, it needs to align with the public agenda, that is, issues of health and safety. Art makes us feel things, and what you put out into the world has an effect on people’s emotional and mental states,” she concludes. “That’s why I hope that through the workshops we conduct, people gain more positivity, and after three years of the pandemic, they want to feel engaged in more social activity to stimulate their health and mind creatively.”

View the full gallery of winning UOB Paintings of the Year here You can also visit the UOB Metaverse Art Gallery. More information available here

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