New study explores connections between craft and community health

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: From left, UNC Asheville professor Ameena Batada; Community Vitality awardees Laura Brooks, Elizabeth Ivey, Tyler Deal, Andi Gelsthorpe and Luis Alvaro Sahagún Nuño; and Center for Craft grant program manager Anna Helgeson were instrumental in developing the Craft & Community Health, Wellbeing & Vitality report. Photo by Cori Anderson

Starting in childhood, people are encouraged to embrace imagination and creativity. Yet in many cases, expressing one’s self through art is gradually discouraged and viewed as frivolous behavior.

“We live in a society that uses science and logic as a way to learn ways to live your life,” says Luis Alvaro Sahagún Nuño. “And so when it comes to the arts, it seems like a hobby. It seems like something that isn’t really taken too seriously.”

A native of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, the Asheville-based artist creates paintings, performances and sculptures that, according to the bio on his website, “confront the palpable inescapability of race, transforming them into acts of cultural reclamation.”

So when Sahagún Nuño learned about a collaborative project between the UNC Asheville-UNC Gillings Master of Public Health program and the Center for Craft — pairing six MPH students with six Craft and Community Vitality grant awardees to explore how the craft artists’ work connects with community health — he was quick to apply.

“It seemed to be quite perfect for me,” Sahagún Nuño says. “I’ve been working over 10 years using art and craft as a way to promote and have certain conversations that, for me, feel that they’re healing. I do performances and rituals surrounding this idea of bringing people together — healing and connecting through making.”

A narrative portrait of Sahagún Nuño, written by MPH student Kerstan Nealy, is now available to read alongside those of his fellow grant awardees in a new report, highlighting the ways their work connects with community wellbeing. Intentionally written to appeal to non-academics, the findings also include a collective framework that presents how health, wellbeing and vitality show up in these makers’ craft processes and outcomes. And it proved so affirming to all involved in the project that they plan to build on these relationships and studies.

Firm foundation

In 2020, Ameena Batada, a professor in UNCA’s Health and Wellness Department, collaborated with the Center for Craft on Black in Black on Black: Making the Invisible Visible, an exhibition about the lives and contributions of Black communities in Western North Carolina. When the nonprofit named community vitality as part of its strategic vision two years later, both sides saw an opportunity for closer partnership.

“I have been interested in the connections between craft and both individual and public health, and the Center was interested in a more regional approach,” Batada says. “Our hope was that we could seed a longer-term partnership that would contribute to highlighting the public health influence of craft in Western North Carolina.

The Center for Craft put out a call for Craft and Community Vitality grant applications in early 2023, and Batada planned her fall course on Place-Based Community Transformation to include partnership activities. Together, they developed a one-page info sheet for awardees and students, outlining plans for the written portraits and the framework.

“The goal of partnership overall was first and foremost to develop relationships,” Batada says. “We called this a ‘pilot’ because we wanted to enter into this activity knowing that we would learn a lot from it, because it was the first time we were engaging in this way. We called this ‘exploratory research’ because the focus was on relationship-building and not on fact-finding or conclusion-making.”

She continues, “I think it is critical to undertake the activities from the perspective of centering the craft artists and their wisdom and experience rather than what we as public health practitioners wanted to know or look for.”

Howdy, partner

The UNCA students started their semester with assigned readings about crafting and health, then met Anna Helgeson, the Center for Craft’s grant program manager for community vitality, who gave them a presentation on the Center, the awards program and each craft artist awardee. Afterward, the students filled out an online form to request to work with a specific craft artist, identifying their preferences and reasons.

“When I reviewed the forms, it was amazing how well-distributed their preferences were,” Batada says. “The pairings emerged beautifully from the students’ preferences.”

Nealy was matched with Sahagun Nuño, and says she feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn more about the ways in which his craft intersects with curanderismo — a holistic approach to wellness — and community healing.

“Luis and the other craft artists we have built relationships with are transforming their communities through craft,” Nealy says. “I think it’s important to recognize those efforts as engaged in the same goal as public health — to improve the condition of individuals and communities.”

According to Batada, the MPH class workshopped what they wanted to ask the craft artists in the interviews, and each student developed their own set of questions. They were also encouraged to engage with the artists in other ways, which resulted in Nealy visiting Sahagun Nuño’s studio and him going to campus for a meeting.

“We ended up having coffee at UNCA and then she conducted an interview — a very thorough interview of my process and about the project,” Sahagún Nuño says. “We hung out for a couple of hours, got all the details in and then, from that information, she got the profile for the study.”

Reflecting on the interview, Sahagún Nuño says Nealy asked an especially compelling question about the concept of home not being merely a tangible, physical place, “but the feelings of home and how those feelings are connected to healing and are connected to craft.”

“Usually, when you think about craft, it’s connected to culture — whether your race or ethnic background or just culturally in the region where you’re at,” he says. “And so, oftentimes, when we’re engaging in a craft, we’re engaging in an ancestral tradition that is rooted, that is a lineage that comes from somewhere else, something bigger than us. And when we connect to this thing, it makes us feel at home — like, a spiritual home.”

Making meaning

In putting together the report with Nealy, who stayed on at UNCA as a graduate assistant, Batada saw several overarching findings stand out from the rest.

One was that public health practitioners may not always think about craft and crafting as a social driver or determinant of health, and that craft artists and makers may also not often think about their work as being part of public health efforts.

She adds that the craft artists in this cohort “were individually multiexperienced and skilled in craft and health,” which makes for “such rich processes and outcomes for them, participants and additional people experiencing the craft and crafting.”

“There are distinct and overlapping themes that emerged in the connections between craft and community health and wellbeing,” Batada says. “It may be difficult to directly measure the impact of craft on a specific health outcome, especially at the community level — not because the methodology cannot be identified but because that approach could be reductive, not honoring the complexity of what is happening at the internal, individual and social levels.”

And yet, she adds, many craft artists and makers are interested in measuring some health outcomes in order to demonstrate to funders, participants and other supporters the value of their craft efforts.

Among them is Sahagún Nuño, who appreciates that the study was written up in an article-like fashion instead of as a jargon-heavy report. He feels that it’s important for the findings to resonate with nonacademics, particularly at a time when mental health is being discussed more openly yet funding for the arts continues to be slashed.

And he notes that the experience validated his work on a new level, particularly his emphasis on connecting with community members of color via arts and crafts, offering them a rare local space where they can feel comfortable being themselves.

“I know that this is healing — my work is rooted in that. To have experts in their field solidify this and bring something tangible, it brings a level of credibility,” Sahagún Nuño says. “It got me closer to people and it got the community closer to me. There’s a reciprocity that is continuing to happen.”

Indeed, Sahagún Nuño recently met with Batada and Nealy to discuss ways of bringing the study’s findings to more UNCA students in practical ways. Of particular interest is incorporating his work of merging contemporary art and craft — such as beadwork or drawing — with Indigenous philosophies of healing modalities.

“What I loved about this project is that it isn’t one and done — like, ‘We did a workshop and see you later,’” he says. “We’re building this together , and there’s opportunities to continue the conversation and to continue expanding.”

To learn more, visit


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.