A Cleft in Time

Simon Hall is a doctor and visual artist whose work explores collaborations between art and medicine. Simon is currently artist in residence at the South West Cleft Service undertaking an Above and Beyond funded art project exploring the narratives of young people with cleft lip and/or palate and the use of art to support psychological wellbeing. 'A Cleft in Time' is a Science Gallery London commission, as part of MOUTHY, and builds on Simon's work. Drop into palate-casting workshops in the Oral Emporium on 19 and 20 October >


“Ok class, today I would simply like you to draw a self-portrait … any questions or concerns?”

Whilst working as an artist and doctor with the South West Cleft Service, I came across the story of a young woman with cleft lip and palate who had been working with the psychology team after having been asked in a GCSE art class to draw a self-portrait. A seemingly innocuous and routine lesson? Unfortunately, the act of putting pencil to paper for her was emotionally challenging, particularly in forming the lines assembling her mouth. However, with the help of the clinical psychologists, she used writing to creatively explore her thought process, move beyond her perception of her cleft lip and palate as an obstacle, and improve her self-confidence.

I feel her story is a small snapshot of how cleft care today has unusual depth, with a large team of professionals supporting a young person from birth until adulthood across a range of physical, psychological and social issues they may encounter. Unfortunately, many of the issues requiring assistance are hidden and often go beyond body image. A young person with cleft may have difficulties with speech and hearing, trouble with bullying and considerable stresses compared to their peers whilst simultaneously undergoing multiple treatment pathways and procedures from a young age.


Rippled, Individual and Hidden

The hard palate at the roof of the mouth is a structure we are all acquainted with on a daily basis, but the tactile feel of it with our tongue is not one we often consider. However this rippled, individual and hidden surface is vital for speech and eating and the impact of a cleft palate upon a young person as they grow can be considerable. Building on my work as a clinician I have undertaken extensive work with the South West Cleft Service, offering artistic opportunites for young people with cleft to enter creative spaces in which they explore their own journeys and provide feedback on their experiences through sculpture, writing and craft. The collaboration with Science Gallery London as part of MOUTHY builds on this.

At the centre of the project within the ‘MOUTHY’ season are the voices and opinions of young people who are not affected by cleft lip or palate. I wanted to create an open and relaxed platform for them to discuss and learn about the topic with their peers alongside being able to spark conversation from engaging professional experiences and expertise. With enthusiastic collaborations from Clinical Psychologist Dr Lottie Williams, CLAPA young person’s worker Sally Carpenter, dental researchers including Dr Saoirse O’Toole and fantastic assistance from KCL dental students, the young people from local schools filled the sessions with interesting and insightful discussion.



Teenagers from Oasis South Bank Academy take part in a workshop with the Science Gallery. Participants are taught about cleft palate by Dr Simon Hall and professionals from CLAPA and Clinical Psychology to explore challenges a young person with the condition may encounter. The interactive workshop allowed young people to cast their own hard palate as part of an educational artwork to explore facial difference and promote discussion. Image credit: Richard Eaton                                                                                                                                                         



Look, Listen and Feel

In the schools workshops we explored the potential challenges young people with cleft may encounter growing up, and I was surprised by the emotionally attuned and mature responses from the teenagers taking part, many of whom had minimal prior knowledge of cleft lip and palate. 

The physical act of making their own hard palate impressions and casting them in coloured plaster helped them to think about the hidden elements of cleft. But importantly I wanted participants to leave with a greater understanding and appreciation of facial difference and to use the unique and quirkily formed casts (readily compared with their friends, and with impressions from young adults affected by cleft that I had brought along) to reduce the stigma of cleft lip and palate. After many surgical procedures, it is important to note that a cast from an individual born with a hard palate cleft may be difficult to distinguish. Yet, the journey to that point can be turbulent, as participants in the session came to appreciate!

As part of the 'A Cleft in Time' commission I am developing an installation for the King's College London Dental Institute. The installation will give a snapshot of the explorations into Cleft that I have made with Oasis South Bank school students, using their hard palate impressions to form the basis of the piece, which will be recast and sculpted alongside impressions from young people affected by cleft. The combined impressions will blur the spectrum of facial difference and highlight the way in which cleft can be visibly abstract and hidden. Snippets of audio from young people with cleft discussing their journey will form part of the piece, providing another dimension in which this piece considers and educates around cleft, and adding to the multiple voices present along the MOUTHY journey. 

Drop into palate-casting workshops with Simon Hall in the Oral Emporium, 1-5pm on 19 October, 4-8pm on 20 October.


Below: young adults with cleft lip and/or palate take part in arts workshops in Bristol in parallel to those with the Science Gallery. Activities included anatomical facial sculpture with artist Eleanor Crook and psychological input to facilitate discussion. Abstract sculpture was used to expand reflection on the body and identity. Image credit: Simon Hall