3rd Apr 2023

Creative Lives is a registered charity which champions community and volunteer-led creative activity, and aims to improve opportunities for everyone to be creative. They work to address inequalities in access to creative participation, promote inclusivity, connect people and communities, and seek to increase awareness of the links between creativity and wellbeing. Their annual awards recognise the achievements of creative groups across the UK, and below, Creative Lives editor Kelly Donaldson chats with members of creative community groups and celebrates some of the highlights from their recent awards…

Life on earth may have altered dramatically over the past 70,000 years, but what motivates us has remained remarkably unchanged. A need for food and shelter aside, the desire to express ourselves and connect with others has played a central role in our humanity for millennia. The people who smoothed and shaped pigment onto cave walls were motivated by much the same drive as those of us who pick up a paintbrush or pencil today: a need to communicate thoughts and feelings, and make sense of the world around us.

For over 30 years, Creative Lives has encouraged people to take up or re-kindle some form of creative activity. There’s no shortage of research documenting the benefits of being creative – whether it’s painting a picture, singing in a choir, weaving a tapestry or designing a garden. From improved mental health or lung capacity to decreased stress or social isolation, the list of physical and emotional advantages are extensive.

What we have also found, however, is that although being creative in and of itself is wonderful, when people come together to create it has tangible benefits for both individuals and communities – as the 60,000+ creative groups across the UK and Ireland can testify. Each year, we encourage those groups to enter the Creative Lives Awards and without exception, we are always blown away by the ingenuity, resourcefulness, altruism and creative spark exhibited by those who enter. This year’s entries ran the gamut of creativity, from a Dublin-based resource centre that combined dance and poetry, to a wonderful celebration of heritage run by the African and Caribbean Elders in Scotland, a music project in Bristol that saw young care-leavers record their own album and many more.

Garden by Catia Silvestre of Survivor Arts

Representation from the visual arts sector has been particularly compelling in recent years, with groups not only demonstrating the beautiful work born out of their activity but the impact taking part has had on their members. The Survivor Arts Community in Glasgow, our Scotland Runner-up in 2021, was set up to address isolation among survivors of sexual abuse or domestic violence. One group member said that the illustration workshops they took part in “Allowed us to show ourselves as complex individuals who are more than just the label ‘survivor’,” and that it was “an important aspect of the healing process."

Similarly, this year’s Peer Award for Excellence (voted for by the shortlisted groups) went to Mental Inkness, a digital art gallery led by people with experience of mental ill health. For the group’s founder, Jessica Oakwood, opportunities to be creative play a pivotal part in her wellbeing. “When I was in hospital for several months, it was the creative workshops that gave me purpose and hope,” she says. “And now when I go to arts and crafts workshops I find them almost meditative. It's a small section of my day where I am just focussing on creating and it’s so helpful as a form of expression. Being part of a creative group gives you a sense of belonging and a common purpose to work towards, which can help fight off loneliness and give you a sense of meaning.”

Distress by Rosalind Batty of Mental Inkness

While both of these groups were set up with a particular healing purpose in mind, more generic creative groups can also have a powerful impact on their members’ wellbeing. Dadesley Crafting in Doncaster, the England Winners of this year’s Creative Lives Awards, run over 80 workshops including watercolour painting, lino printing, card making, needle felting and much more. Co-founder Michelle Dunn quickly found that members of the local community attending the workshops gained much more than a new skill.

“Crafting or painting at home is fantastic but what we’ve found is that when people come in here, they start talking,” says Michelle. “When you’re crafting or painting, you often look down and don’t make eye contact, which means you’re more likely to share things with people that perhaps you wouldn’t otherwise. We’ve also found that some people in the group have been told throughout their lives that they can’t do things – or they were told at school that they’re no good at painting or drawing. But they come here and we tell them that everyone is creative, everyone can achieve things – and they do.”

Speaking to Michelle and group member Jane Denning, their enthusiasm for the workshops – and the way they make them feel – is palpable. “You can come in really stressed about something at home but you leave feeling ten times better,” says Jane. “You just start to smile and laugh with everyone and walk out relaxed and chilled.” But while the boost to wellbeing can’t be overestimated in its importance, being part of a group can also deliver a healthy dose of inspiration, help fire the imagination and increase your skill level.

“You can trawl the internet as much as you like or look on YouTube and get ideas,” says Jane, “but it’s not the same as someone sitting next to you saying ‘Why don’t you try it this way?’.” Michelle nods in agreement: “When you’re sat together round a table, you can see everyone doing things in different ways,” she says. “Reading a book or watching a video is helpful but you’re only seeing that one way of doing it. Here, you pick up somebody else’s experience but you can also see and feel their enthusiasm and excitement.”

That sense of togetherness was also felt in Wales, by members of Cardiff Museum Drawing Group who made it onto this year’s Creative Lives Awards shortlist. They found that meeting up in a central (and inspirational) location to draw, rather than at home alone, had an impact on both their wellbeing and ability. “It improved the confidence of everyone in the group,” says group member Gareth Coles. “And there's also a sense of shared endeavour – that we're all exploring something and developing together. But some of the real benefits come after the drawing activity itself has finished, when people can sit and chat, compare their subjects and approaches, and share notes on their materials and techniques, which really deepens our learning.”

At the end of our recent Creative Lives Awards ceremony in Leeds, a guest approached us to say she had assumed the evening and the Awards themselves would be “All about arts and crafts”. Slightly bemused we replied, “Wasn’t it?”. “No,” she said, “it was about humanity.” We couldn’t agree more.

Feeling inspired?

To get even more inspired, search for a local group near you, find resources to start your own group, or enter next year’s Creative Lives Awards, visit www.creative-lives.org

Written by Kelly Donaldson, Editor, Creative Lives