Review: Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me, 1997-2008

Bobby Baker uses her artistic skills to map a cathartic journey.

Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me, 1997-2008

Wellcome Collection

Euston, London, Until 2 August

In the late 1990s Bobby Baker’s world began to unravel. For many years the successful artist had been considered an eccentric, but in 1997 she was diagnosed as having a mental illness. Baker then started attending a therapeutic day centre in central London where she did daily paintings.

The images, on show in a London gallery, outline her journey through the mental health system, from diagnosis to recovery. Through these, her innermost thoughts and feelings are revealed. She explores her experiences of mental healthcare: the day centres, acute psychiatric wards, crisis teams and a variety of psychotherapies. Together they illustrate a disintegrating mind and the struggle and joys associated with her subsequent recovery.

Art therapy would seem to be an obvious route to recovery for an artist. Originally, the images were a valuable way of processing and communicating thoughts and feelings that are difficult to articulate. There is a great sadness to much of her work. But from her misery and mental anguish she has created art that is enlightening and full of pathos.

Such therapeutic efforts are usually intended to be private. At times her work is caustic and I felt a pang of sympathy for the poor counsellor of hers who gets depicted as a knife-wielding caricature. (I dread to think how some past service users might choose to demonise me given the chance to exhibit in public).

Her subject matter can be funny as well as harrowing. Humour seems integral to Baker’s work; which is unusual as we’re not often encouraged to laugh about mental illness. But in Baker’s hands, it’s a powerful way of looking at humiliating situations. It’s part of an optimistic streak in her.

Baker is remarkable in that she has maintained a thriving career as an artist at a time when she continues to receive support from mental health services.

She is perhaps not your typical service user and these images deal with more than her experiences of using services: they relate to her wider experience of raising a family, building her career as an artist and problems with her physical health.

What started off as therapy, a cathartic journey, has evolved into a fascinating public exhibition. From adversity, Baker has created a positive and intimate portrait of life with a debilitating mental illness.

Further details at: Bobby Baker and The Wellcome Collection  

Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in Southwark, south London and Community Care’s practice adviser

This article is published in the 4 June 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline A story of mental illness – told in pictures 

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