Head Above Water: A public art piece bringing mental health to the Thames.

Standing at nine metres tall, a new interactive and thought-provoking sculpture by Steuart Padwick, and supported by Time to Change, is captivating the landscape and the city of London. The design, uncomplicated but powerful, is of a gender, ethnicity and age neutral head, floating just above the surface of the water.

Its purpose(s)? 

To be a symbol of protest against the negative stereotypes towards mental health, to stimulate conversations and new perspectives and to be a manifestation of hope, compassion, bravery, positivity and change for sufferers, ex-sufferers, supporters and loved ones. And how long has this project been in the pipeline, six months, a year? Not even close. From conception to completion, this entire piece has been undertaken in 15 weeks! I was privileged enough to speak with Stueart Padwick about the journey which led him, his amazing team of over 100 people and 30 companies, to achieve this feat:

“We were offered this opportunity about 13/14 weeks ago, I know absolutely nuts. And you must think ‘why the hell didn’t you plan it sooner’, it’s because we were doing something up at Kings Cross (part of Designjunction, which is part of the London Design Festival) – I was designing a pavilion for them, it was great, we’d planned it all, nice and early on. And then, 14/15 weeks ago we rang them just to check a couple of details, during this conversation they said, ‘oh we’ve had to change venues – moving from Kings Cross to the Southbank.’ When we came down here they explained that they didn’t need a pavilion anymore, so I joked ‘can we have something floating on the Thames.’ So, I was thinking about what would be the new concept, and then it just dawned on me, this is the perfect location for a head above water…..Then through speaking to a friend about the project, they told me to contact Mind and they set us up with Time to Change…..These last few weeks have been totally relentless for Natalie and I, a lot of stress, working from 7am until 10pm nearly every day.”

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 16: As part of the London Design Festival and design junction British designer Steuart Padwick makes a dramatic change to the London skyline in support of mental health. Head Above Water is a 9 metre high sculpture on the Queens Stone Getty at Gabriel’s Wharf on London’s South Bank on September 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images for Head Above Water).

Steuart’s lightbulb moment was not a result of a sudden epiphany, in fact, it had its roots in a simpler time, back in 2014. During an art residency off the coast of Maine, which involved the Haystack Mountain Craft College allowing 50 professional artists to stay with them for two weeks, Steuart and the other guests could enjoy a variety of techniques and art forms to try. For the rest of the time, they could simply relax on the beach for inspiration. No pressure.

Whilst he was sat on the beach, he started sketching, then he started sketching with rocks and parts of tree, placing them just on top of the tide. And it dawned on him, it was like a head above water.

“And all of a sudden, I realised I was creating this self-portrait without even realising it, like many people I’ve had my own demons, my own battles, my stuff, that I’ve carried all my life. And it was like oh gosh, without knowing it, all of a sudden, I’m in a better place, life was actually ok. And it’s a bit scary, am I tempting fate. Treading that fine like, like the head above water….My demons are there and they can bite you back….So, it was an extraordinarily cathartic experience….That was my journey, but this (pointing to the sculpture) is not my head.”

A really innovative aspect of the sculpture is the nightly interactive Twitter feed which anyone can access, by using the #HeadAboveWaterLondon @hawLDN you can # an emotion and the head will change to a colour in accordance with the emotion. This was the brainchild of Dr Sally Marlow PhD, Fellow at the Institute of Psychiatry. Steuart described that this feature was both whimsical and in the hope of starting conversations. 

“You can play with it – I want young people to start playing with it from happy to sad, and sad to happy, because then maybe the subliminal message that your feelings can just change, things can get better…If it can open a door to something out there.”

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 16: As part of the London Design Festival and design junction British designer Steuart Padwick makes a dramatic change to the London skyline in support of mental health. Head Above Water is a 9 metre high sculpture on the Queens Stone Getty at Gabriel’s Wharf on London’s South Bank on September 16, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images for Head Above Water).

As mentioned, this project has taken a village. From the King George V lock letting them assemble for free, Bamnuttle supplying cranes free of charge and a company who work with MatesInMind providing electricians. And then Port of London wavering the license fee, Lambeth not charging for their Section 30 temporary structure license and Morley & Kings donating seven thousand pounds for the interactive Twitter tool. Stuart has said it has been an extremely humbling, amazing and privileged experience to be part of and wants to give a huge thanks to all those involved. However, of course the sculpture cannot remain there forever, so at the end of September, when its time at the South Bank ends, where will it travel to next? Steuart explained there are a lot of companies and organisations interested in precuring the statue. For example, a recycling company in North Fleet want to turn it into a living garden, Morley & Kings want to analyse the Twitter data and King George V lock, City Airport and Royal Victoria docks want it to become a permanent piece in their locations.

This public art piece is extraordinary in its ordinary aesthetic, the thought, the dedication and community that has gone into this project is outstanding. And hopefully, it will at least spark one conversation about mental health, because as Steuart concluded:

 “Why should suffering with depression be embarrassing, when a broken leg isn’t?”

.LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 14: As part of the London Design Festival and design junction British designer Steuart Padwick makes a dramatic change to the London skyline in support of mental health. Head Above Water is a 9 metre high sculpture on the Queens Stone Getty at Gabriel’s Wharf on London’s South Bank on September 14, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Luke Walker/Getty Images for Head Above Water).

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