Why You Should Be Backing the Campaign for Creativity
How important is art and creativity in schools? Well, according to the way our current curriculum is shaped in the UK, not very. However, the Campaign for Creativity, led by a group of leading UK textile artists, designers and craftspeople and The Festival of Quilts, Europe’s biggest patchwork and quilting event and the Knitting and Stitching Show, are looking to inspire and encourage people of all ages and abilities to explore their creative side. A major part of this is to challenge the undermining of arts subjects within schools and emphasise the benefits of creative activity for the mental well-being of young people.
A survey of creative activity within schools demonstrated some concerning results:
Three quarters (75.8%) of art, craft and design subject teachers and lecturers surveyed for the Campaign for Creativity say schools should provide more opportunities for children to be creative and think creatively. Over half (57.2%) say that during their teaching career, chances for children to be creative at school have declined, and only one in twenty (5.6%) believes the national curriculum encourages children’s creative skills and talents.
This is reason to be worried for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are a country that has a reputation as a leader in many creative fields. Many industries are built upon them. I myself come from the West Midlands and work within the Stoke-on-Trent area on a regular basis (look, they are running for City of Culture 2021, read about that here). Stoke-on-Trent is a city built upon creative innovation, which leads to highly lucrative industries. With that cultural heritage in mind, there are now a number of projects and organisations that are working tirelessly within the city and the surrounding area to bring these creative pursuits back to the population, and especially to young people. For example, the BCB’s Clayschool aims to bring ceramics back to the heart of creative education in Stoke-on-Trent, and has set themselves the target of engaging with all schools in the city by 2021.
Perhaps what is most shortsighted about this maligning of the arts within schools is that it negates the importance of creative thinking in all career paths. I speak from experience here, as an academic it is vital that I can approach subjects in an innovative way. My arts background has enabled me to develop philosophies to approach my work, and ensured that I can make creative connections between different subject matters and theories. Working on creative projects is also a way to find your own voice; to identify and express your thoughts and opinions. These are also vital skills for any individual in the workplace (and life) no matter what career path they chose.
The sciences are often held up as the gold standard of academic pursuits, but what is science if not creative experimentation? Art, in the hands of a good teacher, encourages you to take risks. It teaches you how to see the world outside of your comfort zone as something to conquer, rather than be afraid of. It also inspires personal reflection and critical engagement with your own work, and that of others. It can give you a vocabulary to critique and discuss complex issues. Perhaps most importantly, art encourages the questioning of everything you are presented with. Are these not all qualities that are needed in a great scientist? Or a great lawyer? Or a great politician?
The point is, art teaches so much more than ‘how to paint’. Creativity is at the heart of who we are as human beings (seriously, most cultural innovations come from the creative types!), what shapes our culture, and what creates a diverse and vibrant society.
Anthea Godfrey, Artistic Director of The Embroiderers’ Guild, said: “The rigid nature of the national curriculum provides little opportunity or time for children to express themselves creatively, artistically or professionally. Creativity is vital to child development, not only as a means of expression and communication but to support life skills such as problem-solving, strategic thinking and resilience.
There is also the prescient mental health crisis that we are currently presented with. The mental health charity MIND state that one in four people each year can suffer with mental health difficulties, such as anxiety and depression. Moreover, there is a body of research that suggests the benefits of art, craft, and creativity to help people cope with and manage these conditions.
This is something I can attest to personally. Two years ago I was well on the way to finishing my PhD. I was determined to submit my thesis and hit the ground running, applying for jobs as soon as I could. Many colleagues advised me to take some time off after submitting – telling me stories how they had needed a two-week holiday somewhere hot, or had shut their computer and not looked at a book from the time they submitted to the week before their viva (PhD examination). But, as you often do, I did not take this well-reasoned advice, and instead chose to ride the momentum.
This was a big mistake! And six months later I hit burn out. That time off I should have taken, I was now forced to. But it gave me time to reflect (creative skill at work there!) on why I had not managed to carry on. Part of the problem was that in this high-pressure world that we live in we so often focus on the goal and forget that we can’t go the distance if we don’t look after ourselves along the way. When I looked back on the last two years one thing became startlingly apparent – I had virtually given up on the creative aspects of my life.
I thought about times when I had been stressed about work before, and looked at how I had overcome that. One very clear memory I have was from my PGCE year. I was getting increasingly frustrated with an assignment (probably one of the seven page lesson plans, if you’ve done a teaching qualification you’ll understand!), so I stopped, turned of the computer and picked up the patchwork project that I had recently started (see how that turned out here). With each rhythmic stitch I could feel the anxiety and stress ebb further away. After an hour or so of stitching, I returned to the assignment fresh and got it finished.
So in my time out from academia to recharge, I stitched. I also began to draw again, taking up a life drawing class once a week. I started to take more photographs. I finally started projects that had been buzzing in the back of my mind for too long. And as I did this, as I allowed my focus to shift and enjoy the things I was making and the process of creating, I once again started to feel the anxiety slowly ebb away.
This is why I was so intrigued when I heard about the Campaign for Creativity, and its close association with textile arts. For me, there is a synthesis between the act of patchwork and recovery from mental health issues. Firstly, there are so many metaphorical parallels to be drawn from the process of taking scraps of fabric and piecing them together until they formulate a finished piece. There are decisions to be made, how will you reconstruct the fragments to make a whole? The act of taking raw materials and crafting them into something with meaning and purpose can be revelatory.
There is also the act of stitching itself. Hand-stitching, that is, which for me is where I find the greatest solace. There is a pacing to hand-stitching that is anathema to our modern lives. A rhythmic task to cut through the chaotic thoughts of an anxious mind. It requires focus, but is not too taxing, you let your fingers do the work.
Perhaps the most striking parallel to be drawn is the notion of time that becomes apparent when stitching or patch-working. That is, projects do not happen in a day (ok, some smaller ones do). These things take time. They cannot be rushed. Re-configuring the pieces and forming the connections that allow them to take shape and gain strength is a lengthy task. Just as recovery from a mental health condition will not happen overnight, or by simply ‘cheering up’ (we all have that one family member, right?!), it takes time. More importantly, it NEEDS time. Rushing the work will only lead to more work later down the line.
This is my take on how creativity helps me. However, it is an individual process. I know people who paint, or take photographs. For some people it is writing. I have worked with children who have seen great improvements in their behaviour and emotional well-being from working with clay. The point is, children need to be given the opportunity to try different creative pursuits to find the outlet that bests suits them. Because if we can learn to recognise the negative effects of stress and develop methods to cope with them at an early age then this is a sure strategy to enable people to cope and possibly prevent (or help to minimise) mental health issues developing in their future.
And evidence collected by the Campaign for Creativity backs this up. In a survey of over 1,100 stitchers, quilters, knitters and weavers in the Midlands:
nearly six in ten (59%) say that crafting helps alleviate stress. More than eight in ten (83%) feel relaxed and calm when sewing or crafting, and over a quarter (28%) say their hobby has helped them cope with anxiety. 53% feel uplifted and energised when they sew or knit, and three in ten (30%) say their craft hobby has helped them deal with depression. For more than one in five (23%), textile crafting has aided recovery from a traumatic episode like bereavement or divorce.
So my own mental solace in stitching is definitely not an isolated case. There are also social benefits to be gained as well with results from the same survey showing that ‘two thirds (66%) of Midlands textile crafters have made new friends through their hobby and over half (52%) say crafting has helped boost their confidence.’
Alleviating stress, a way to feel relaxed and calm, a way to help cope with anxiety, a way to help deal with depression, a way to boost confidence – are these not all things that most individuals can benefit from? Are they also not important things to impart to children? A mechanism to cope with the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. This is why I am fully behind this campaign, and I am so pleased to see that it is taking a stand for our creative future.
The petition they plan to present to Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, at the end of the year is also taking an appropriate form; a giant embroidered petition. Yes, that’s right, this is one project that is encouraging a little more than keyboard activism (although there is a change.org petition here which you need to sign as well) and asking that people do something creative to show their support. An act that will result in a tangible demonstration of our nation’s commitment to art and creative pursuits. I am already thinking about my embroidered contribution, and I hope you will too!
Stitched signatures can be made at or brought along to The Knitting & Stitching Shows and The Festival of Quilts during 2017, or sent to the campaign’s headquarters at The Campaign for Creativity, Twistedthread, 58 White Lion Street, London N1 9PP.