Julian Sheather on Bobby Baker’s diary drawings

Representations of mental illness are traditionally menaced by two kinds of distortion, distortions that seem to pull in opposing directions. The first, and far the most common, is that the mentally ill are asocial, chaotic and violent, their ungoverned minds unfitting them for ordinary human civility, their dangerous impulses requiring surveillance, confinement and control.
The second is that mental illness is a kind of gift or blessing, a necessary if unwelcome companion to exceptional talent or great insight. This view, which owes a deal to late-Romantic views of creative genius, sees mental illness as the breaking-in of inspiration, setting the chosen one beside and beyond more ordinary ‘untouched’ souls. Although there may be a faint and occasional residue of truth in both, what is missing is any sense of the sheer domestic dullness of so much mental illness, the awful ordinariness of it. Although it might be tempting to say that ordinariness – or at least ordinary misery – is an enemy to art, Bobby Baker’s current exhibition at the Wellcome Trust, “Bobby Baker’s Dairy Drawings: Mental Illness and Me, 1997-2008,” suggests that, in the right hands, art and mental illness can by symbiotic.

Bobby Baker is a 58 year old performance artist. She is married to a photographer and has two grown-up children. Her best known work is rooted in the domestic and the mundane. Take Box Story which premiered in 2000. It involves the onstage unpacking of a Pandora’s box of assorted food and drink packets, each inside the other, a performance that starts with cornflakes and just-juice and lurches away into horror and farce. In the late 1990’s  things began, in Baker’s words, ‘to unravel.’ Diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder, “distressed beyond anything I imagined it possible for a human being to be and remain alive,” her mind was torn apart by a psychotic breakdown. “I saw blood everywhere I went – smelt it too.”

At the beginning of 1997 she referred herself to Pine Street, a therapeutic communal day centre in Clerkenwell. She found herself a ‘sunny art room’ and made a strict rule: “to do a diary drawing every day.” The diary was supposed to last three weeks. She kept it for eleven years – though in time the daily drawings became weekly. Of those, one hundred and fifty seven are in the exhibition.

Art therapy can make me uneasy. When I was in my twenties I went with a young friend – a talented painter who was going blind – to an exhibition of paintings by people who had lost their sight. As I wandered around the gallery I grew sadder and sadder. There was no avoiding the obvious: the pictures were awful. It was not art you were looking at, it was the faintest of hopes. Criticising the paintings felt like vandalising someone’s soul. When we came out I asked her what she thought of them. Terrible, she said. I wanted to cry with relief. She would paint until she could no longer see and then she would stop.

With art therapy, the therapy is usually the thing. The ‘art’ is a by-product. At the Wellcome Trust, Baker’s drawings are the thing. The daily ritual of making them may have anchored her, may have helped her momentarily distance herself from her horrors, but this is much more than art as therapy. Through a series of clever, coloured and unpitying cartoons she slowly builds a picture of what it means to live with a disintegrating mind. Sly, witty and precise, at times caustic, at times flatly horrific, she brings you as close as you probably want to get to the daily horrors of severe mental illness. This is fine biographical art, and, it needs to be said, the art of an extraordinarily courageous survivor.

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.