affective materials: observing the benefits of slow making in an arts-for-health context

Between 2012 and 2015 I benefitted from an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award that allowed me to explore the relationship between manual creativity and mental health. My research was concerned with neglected affective, relational, material, and processual dimensions of amateur crafts practice in an arts-for-health context. It responded to the lack, in this field, of fine-grained, long-term, ethnographic work based on participant observation. Its novel methodological approach relied on sustained ethnographic study of two wellbeing-oriented crafts groups supported by Arts for Health Cornwall. One group, which I set up and facilitated, was based in the community; the other was linked to a general practice. Detailed observation resulted in novel understandings of the potential benefits of crafting for health as emergent properties of particular locations, relationships, and practices organized in distinctive ways around creative making.

Firstly, as a counterweight to normative views of amateur crafts creativity as soothing and distracting, the thesis emphasises that making involves a range of transformative emotional states including frustration, creative ambition, and enchantment. Secondly, countering an atomistic, stable depiction of such affects, my study describes them as fluid aspects of making processes. Thirdly, these unfolding processes are seen to be inseparable from the intersubjective (peer-to-peer and participant-facilitator) dimensions of creative groups. Lastly, this in vivo perspective problematises a view of materials as 'dead matter' or an inert substratum upon which makers exercise their creative powers, and highlights the relevance of a ‘vital materialism’ (Bennett, 2010) for understanding the potential benefits of manual creativity.

The thesis also proposes a situated, spatial account of the extended networks of community belonging produced by the activities of such groups. Fieldwork was contextualised within a wider field using interviews with nine UK arts for health organizations. Consideration was also given to the influence of contemporary discourses of wellbeing, agency, and creativity on policy making in the area of arts for health. The findings have implications for good practice in the field, and for further research to inform political leadership concerning the role of the arts in health, particularly relevant for a UK health economy undergoing rapid, crisis- driven transformation.

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