Headspace helps to put a happy face on the children who look different (The Observer)
As a surgeon with the responsibility of redrawing the disfigured faces and reshaping the misshapen heads of children, he needs all the guidance he can muster. So in 2011 he came up with the idea of enlisting the public to help him in his work in the craniofacial unit at Alder Hey in Liverpool, one of Europe’s biggest children’s hospitals.
Two years on, the result is Headspace, a fascinating and unique interactive installation, put together by three women graduates of Liverpool School of Art and Design, that is running at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in the city centre. Headspace is where science meets art.
Duncan’s aim is to find the archetypal, aesthetically “normal” human head shape, the ideal to aspire to when he is wielding his scalpel. To do this he needed a database of at least 1,000 heads.
Last week the 1,000th volunteer entered photographer Paula Murray’s specially built booth to have her head captured from five angles with a £55,000 state-of-the-art 3D camera made in Atlanta, Georgia. Afterwards participants can view the extraordinary 360-degree pictures on the Headspace website. It can be disconcerting to see yourself as others see you; at least it was for number 826 (your correspondent).
Craniofacial surgeon Christian Duncan, the man with a thousand faces. Photograph: David Gurney
Eventually all the data will be fed into a computer to produce a “normal” head. Duncan hopes a model of that head will be produced by next spring. He will share the results of the £100,000 project with the three other craniofacial treatment centres in England: Great Ormond Street hospital in London; Birmingham Children’s Hospital; and Oxford University hospitals. “My vision is to share it with everybody,” he said.
Together, the four centres, ,with a combined NHS annual budget of £8.5m, treat a complex series of conditions, mainly congenital, many with bewildering names, which affect several hundred babies each year. The conditions can render children disfigured facially or give them unusually shaped heads; they include Apert syndrome, sagittal synostosis (boat-shaped head) and Saethre-Chotzen syndrome.
Sufferers look incontrovertibly different, which is where Duncan’s quest for “normal” comes in. “Our first priority, of course, is to make sure a child can see, breathe and talk,” he said. “But then we want them to appear aesthetically normal so they can function socially and maximise their opportunities. If you look different you are prone to psychological damage, to being teased and bullied. My aim is to give children back their anonymity, to make them unrecognisable in a crowd.”
August Pullman, a fictional 10-year-old boy born with a disfigured face, is one child who yearns for anonymity. He is the protagonist of Wonder, a bestselling novel by New York writer R J Palacio, published last year.
“If I found a magic lamp and could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed,” he says. “I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing.”
In the real world, Oscar Bigland from Kendal, Cumbria, will never have to suffer such trauma. He was born 16 months ago with trigonocephaly – triangular-shaped head. But a fortnight ago, in an operation lasting more than six hours, Duncan transformed Oscar’s looks. He is expected to be running around by the time his parents Gary, 34, and Ami, 27, get married in four weeks’ time.
“We were shocked when he was born,” said Ami, a former optician’s assistant. “In the hospital they said it was because of a forceps delivery, but I knew that was wrong. The people here at Alder Hey are wonderful: they’ve pulled out all the stops.”
Gary, who works in a paper mill, said: “We’re so grateful. Oscar will have a much better quality of life now.”
Duncan, 45, a loquacious and charismatic Irishman, arrived at Alder Hey as a consultant plastic surgeon in 2004 and has led the craniofacial team since 2010. He is keen to emphasise that it is a team effort. But the spotlight will be on him when he turns surgery into performance art at Headspace on 20 November. Using prosthetic skulls, he will perform a two-hour operation in front of an audience in a small theatre (the acting kind).
However, Duncan sees surgery not as an art, but a craft. Taking a skull apart and then rebuilding it is more akin to what a carpenter does, he believes. “Art involves self-expression,” he said. But what about staging an operation for an audience? “Well, I admit that there’s something of an exhibitionist in plastic surgeons. And most of us tend to be painters or sculptors, though I can’t draw very well.”
But performance was not the point of the public demonstration: “It’s about education and demystification – we surgeons are just ordinary people. And it also gets the Alder Hey craniofacial team on the radar.”
For Rachel Armstrong, 23, one of the three graduates, surgery and art are now forever entwined. Since becoming full-time co-ordinator of Headspace she has watched two craniofacial operations, one of six hours, the other of eight. Kitted out in green surgeon’s scrubs, she is to return to the theatre soon with pencil and paper to draw. “That’s going to be amazing,” she said. Her work will hang at Headspace.
Headspace runs at FACT, Wood Street, Liverpool, until 1 December; it is open every day except Monday.
This article has been reproduced from The Observer, 10 November 2013
- Read more about the Headspace project.