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Handicraft: The Ancient Tradition of Creating Things with Your Hands

Posted By Mark Sisson On February 16, 2012 @ 8:00 am In Health | 120 Comments

Anyone who’s spent significant time creating with their hands – whether it be painting, carpentry, knitting, carving, building – can appreciate the distinctive satisfaction it evokes. (I’m using the term broadly.) Handicraft, as wide a spectrum as it can encompass, isn’t about routine chores or fix-its. There’s a difference between grudgingly doing your own home repairs to save money and savoring the experience of meticulously renovating your own home. It’s about the love of the craft on some level. Not everyone would put it in those specific terms, but the people I know who practice handicraft acknowledge they’re drawn to what they do on some subconscious level. Picking up a familiar tool feels comfortable, even calming. The balance of its weight in your hand feels sure. Spending an hour at one’s own workspace (e.g. basement studio, garage workbench), however plain or disheveled, feels like time in a secluded oasis. It’s in the craft that you find focus – flow [7] even. The brush or needles, chisel or knife, spade or hammer become an unconscious extension of self. The mind devises, but the hand itself thinks, designs, knows. In its fullness, we lose ourselves in the full physical experience of craft – in the sensory nuances, in the emotional associations, in the intuitive energy. I’d venture we’re the happier and healthier for these endeavors.

We live in a society enamored by passive entertainment [8] and increasingly invested in the virtual experience. Fewer of us have jobs that show us the tangible results of our efforts. Rarer still are full claim on a project or creative license in our work. It leaves a gap, I think, in how we live – in how we exercise the innate physical and creative abilities that make us human.

Although we tend to think of our pre-Neolithic ancestors as living a life stuck in the dirt with no sense of the arts or any other “refinement,” we’re far off course in that assumption. Artistry is indeed an anthropological indicator of modern behavior, but evidence of these inclinations date back tens of thousands of years before the Agricultural Revolution. Our Paleolithic ancestors were creating jewelry from eggshells and bone fragments. They were sewing clothes with animal sinew. They formed vessels and wove baskets. They created paints and dyes. They chiseled spear heads from metal so brittle few of us can even imagine the deftness required. They meticulously whittled shafts for the most aerodynamic, accurate spears. They designed vast stretches of nuanced cave art.

As anthropologists suggest, these inclinations toward craft and artistry were selected for. They increased the survival chances of individuals and their communities. A skilled spear maker added obvious value. Yet those who could design jewelry or other adornment introduced “material metaphors” and “social technologies” that enhanced kinship relationships and community identity as well as expanded the terms of inter-band negotiation [9].

Artistry then was usable if not practical. Today, Western society has largely segregated art to an aesthetic corner. It may represent life but doesn’t intersect much with it. However, individuals still practice crafts handed down to them by family or community members. Likewise, many traditional societies continue to pass down the art forms and crafts as “collective wisdom” that help define their distinctive cultures.

A recent study (PDF [10]) conducted by the University of California Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities recently highlighted “the link between traditional artistic practices and mental and physical health.” Although examining such an association isn’t a simple or clear cut task with the methods of standard research, interviews suggested traditional handicraft bears positive impact on measures like “interconnected mind-body awareness,” “spiritual and emotional growth; physical vigor; strengthening of personal and community identity; and mitigation of historical trauma” as well as therapeutic “distraction from illness” and “enhanced respect for elders [11].”

Dr. Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities, explains that several “protective factors” are at work here. The practice of traditional arts, particularly as they’re handed down within a cultural community, affirms “intergenerational involvement” and “community engagement.” As Amy Kitchener, executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, notes [11], cultural practices are “embedded in everyday life, in ceremonies and family rites of passage” for many traditional groups and have long played a meaningful role in the concept of personal wellness. According to the researchers [10], traditional handiwork also enhances more individual-based factors like “resilience” and “self-efficacy.”

The study, I think, underscores far more than the power of acculturation. Many of us partake in handicraft arts with only personal interest or perhaps familial, but not necessarily cultural affiliations. Nonetheless, there’s still a gratification that comes from its connection with tradition. We understand that we’re one in a long line of individuals who have practiced the art for decades, centuries, even millennia. The urge to create – what is useful and tangible – is deeply human. There’s something about it that releases stress [12] and brings us back to center.

We develop a reverence for the craft and even a relationship with the tools themselves. They can become more personal than the items we build or create. For those of us who know or have known a craftsman/woman, we honor that association. We pass many things on through the generations. What means the most, however, are the things that our forebears used and made. A decorative item reminds us of a great-grandparent’s home, but a tool or even a baking pan that we saw a grandparent use over the years makes us absorb his/her very presence. We see the years and feel his/her hands in the wear of the item. Likewise, in the creations they made, we preserve a glimpse of their creativity, a parcel of their lifetime. In our own arts, we enjoy and undoubtedly share the same.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on the healthful benefits behind handicraft and traditional arts.


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[11] enhanced respect for elders: http://californiawatch.org/dailyreport/uc-davis-study-links-traditional-arts-health-14477

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