Drawn to healing: Therapist uses art to help kids, teens deal with pain

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

If you need help . . .

PENINSULA BEHAVIORAL HEALTH provides many services to children, adults and families coping with mental health problems and challenges such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. For information visit www.PeninsulaBehavioral.org or phone 360-457-0431. The center's offices are in Sequim at 490 N. Fifth Ave. and in Port Angeles at 118 E. Eighth St.

To reach registered art therapist Kristin Warner, phone the main number above and dial extension 209.

For more information about art therapy and other therapists practicing on the North Olympic Peninsula, visit the American Art Therapy Association at www.ArtTherapy.org.

Peninsula Daily News
PORT ANGELES — Once in a while, a child looks up and says to Kristin Warner: “This is really helpful.”

And for Warner, that is the moment of joy. It can come in the middle of her work day as a staff member with Peninsula Behavioral Health, the community agency providing mental health care to people of all ages.

Warner works with young people whose worlds have fallen apart. They have seen their parents hurt each other, over and over.

Or a family member has died tragically. Or the child him- or herself has been mistreated.

Warner is a registered art therapist who creates a safe place for these children and teens to come. Working a couple of days a week in Sequim and the rest in Port Angeles, Warner has about 45 young clients.

In her refuge are colored pencils, paints, clay and even a Buddha Board, the water-painting device used to make images-of-the-moment.

Here, a piece of art work doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't have to be presentable anywhere outside the room where it's made. Instead, Warner helps each client draw, paint or sculpt a unique emotion and experience.

Inside her office, an art exercise can be a wordless poem, a cleansing and a revelation.

“Children can start to understand why they might have certain fears,” for example, “or why they might be feeling angry,” says Warner. “Once they can understand where it's coming from, they have more power over that feeling, rather than it having power over them.

“Art also can give people a sense of accomplishment, of self-esteem,” something Warner has seen for herself.

One of the art projects in her therapeutic repertoire: a “shield of strengths.” It's a three-dimensional shield made of cardboard, emblazoned with painted symbols. Like a knight's shield bearing a family crest, it carries images of its maker's best qualities.

Together, Warner and her clients, be they elementary school-age children or teenagers, talk about these strengths, and then figure out how to draw and paint them onto the shield.

Storytelling is another form of art therapy Warner uses, depending on the age of the person she's working with. Sometimes, she says, writing a narrative about what happened to you, as difficult as that is, can open your path to healing.

When you have endured a terrible loss, it is crucial to walk through your grief, and not “stuff it,” Warner says. As so many of us know from experience, pain pushed deep down into the heart can explode.

Whether it is fingerpainting, constructing a shield of strengths or penning a story, art holds great power, Warner believes. It has the power to release pain as well as reveal inner joy.

On the American Art Therapy Association website (www.ArtTherapy.org), there are articles about the practice around the country, and an acknowledgement of the art therapists working with the children and families of Newtown, Conn., where the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre took place Dec. 14.

In Warner's life, art has played many roles. After growing up in Bremerton, she earned a degree in art from Western Washington University in Bellingham and went off to make her living in advertising, as an art director for agencies such as Ayer of New York City. Her clients there ranged from De Beers Diamonds to Breyer's ice cream.

But there came a day when Warner realized she wanted something else. She hoped to use art to heal, not to sell products.

In 2004, Warner began working toward her master's degree at Antioch University in Seattle, the state's only school offering a graduate program in art therapy.

To earn her credential as a registered art therapist, she had to log 1,000 hours of direct contact with clients, plus 100 hours with a supervising therapist. She graduated from Antioch in 2008 and holds three credentials: as a registered art therapist, a licensed mental health counselor and a national certified counselor.

Next, Warner plans to take the next step toward another credential, that of board certified art therapist. For this, she is preparing to take the examination in June at the American Art Therapy Association's national conference in Seattle.

Warner began working at Peninsula Behavioral Health in February 2009.

Her young clients come to her upon the recommendation of teachers, family doctors or the Department of Family and Child Services.

Parents also may call her for information about art therapy, Warner adds. Peninsula Behavioral Health accepts Medicaid and private insurances.

“Until Kristin came, we hadn't had somebody who was certified [in art therapy]. Now, we have someone who really knows how to use it diagnostically,” said Peter Casey, executive director of Peninsula Behavioral Health.

While Warner is part of the center's team working with children, she is also trained to work with adults, Casey added.

A variety of art adorns Warner's office walls. There's a peaceful snow scene that looks like a painting, but is in fact a colored-pencil drawing made by Warner.

She has displayed her works in galleries across the Pacific Northwest, and is a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America (www.CPSA.org) and Women Painters of Washington (www.WomenPainters.com).

And though she has spent much of her life in bigger cities, Warner says she finds the rural Olympic Peninsula suits her.

“I connected with [this place],” she says. “It's an inspiring place for an artist.”

Also on her wall is a framed finger painting by Ruth Faison Shaw, a pioneer in art therapy who knew Warner's mother. Shaw worked with children and finger paints during the 1930s and gave this painting to Warner's family some 75 years ago.

Life and work here, for Warner, are a mixture of challenge, reward — and hope.

“I think we're making progress in dispelling the stigma of mental health problems,” she says.

Warner also sees a growing understanding that the body and mind aren't separate.

“The healing process is about both of them together.”

Last modified: January 20. 2013 9:24AM
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