Best known as a performance artist with a penchant for the surreal Bobby Baker's 'Diary drawings' exposed a hidden history of mental illness. She talks to Emma Robertson about the impact of making such intimate drawings public.
Emma Robertson: The 2009 exhibition ‘Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me’ at the Wellcome Collection was a key moment for you to decide to publicly address your mental health experiences, later followed by the book, which subsequently won MIND Book of the Year 2011. What made you decide to do so at that point?
Bobby Baker: Well, I didn’t do the drawings in any way to show them to people originally. In fact I hid them as much as I could. I did them entirely for myself and continued to do so the whole way through the eleven years that I was part of the mental health system. But, gradually, I did start to show them to family and friends – and also mental health professionals. The response to the drawings was so positive that I decided to accept the opportunity to exhibit a few of them at Bath University, which ultimately led to the large exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. I think there is this terrible doom and gloom attached to any unusual experiences so by making my experiences public I wanted to give a sense of the difficulties of the journey but, also, the idea that there is hope. I personally have recovered - I don’t want to say that everybody has to or needs to - but that’s what my aim was, to give people a sense of hope. I was also a bit astonished by how much people I knew hadn’t realised what was happening. Even close friends and family hadn’t realised the intensity of it because I’m very good at carrying on and keeping up a front. So when it came to the exhibition I wanted to have a sort of story line if you like; the highs, the lows, the horror, and most of all the humour.
ER: Were you surprised at the sort of the emotional responses it had from audiences?
BB: Yes, though funnily enough I vanished into hospital for a knee operation while the exhibition was on. It was quite a relief actually because people were so overwhelmed and emotional, I was a bit stunned for a while. What was so astonishing was that I had thought that people who had been through the experience themselves might relate to it but I didn’t realise how much. And I hadn’t realised that family members of people experiencing mental health problems (there were a lot of comments and feedback from young people whose parents had been ill) would relate to it and that was very, very moving. I also, still, find it rather shocking that people are so horrified, sometimes it can be quite irritating actually. That sounds a bit unfair but people always talk about how awful it is – and it is of course - but it can also be very funny and it’s part of being human. I’ve met the best people in the world through it because when you go through experiences like that - you’re real, you don’t have this front. So I find that the hardest bit to deal with – that people always say: ‘oh, it’s so terrible’ and I think, ‘Well I know, but look, here I am!’
ER: Did the process of creating the art work help you view your own experiences differently?
BB: The actual process of making paintings is wonderful. I am a professional artist in the sense of doing performances and that’s how I make a living but I very rarely have had the time to do painting, though I trained as a painter and I love it. But I found the actual process of making the paintings very soothing. There’s something about drawing, and putting paint on paper, that’’s very absorbing. But, it’s been a gradual process – especially after the book came out – of getting some distance from it all, and acceptance, as it’s rather humiliating to go mad. It’s painful to look back on it. Initially the drawings gave me a sense of objectivity because I found it quite hard to realise how ill I was to begin with but, now, I do feel more of a distance. And the fact that I’ve had this extraordinary opportunity really feels a privilege because they’re something to add to the whole pool of knowledge about what that experience can be like. I feel much stronger as a result of the whole process, but its taken time.
ER: In your performance art you literally put yourself centre stage but I wondered whether you felt more or less exposed with the paintings?
BB: Very exposed. It was a risky thing to do and I’ve always considered very carefully the personal aspects I reveal, especially in relation to family and friends. I did talk to my family; Dora (my daughter – who is now a Clinical Psychologist and who co-curated the exhibition with me) and I talked a lot about balancing risk with positive consequences. Part of being mentally ill or going through the mental health system is you can get very angry at the injustice of it all - the under-funding, chaos, or bigotry and I was sort of bloody-minded actually. I thought - I can’t just keep quiet about this forever. If I had felt like I was on my own, I perhaps wouldn’t have had the courage to do it but as a family we were very much helped by hearing stories and seeing bits of publicity where people talked about their experiences. I remember MIND did a whole series of pamphlets in 2000 featuring people like Paul Merton, and it really helped me not to feel so alone. I felt I wanted to be part of that. If my story helps contribute to the general pool of knowledge, then that’s worthwhile.
ER: As you say you trained as an artist, but were you consciously thinking that you wanted to create ‘art’?
BB: I think what was interesting was that I didn’t care. Each one was made at that time, unselfconsciously. I realised, after I’d done the drawings and seen them exhibited, that I had drawn them using intuitive approaches to perspective. I was taught classic Renaissance perspective techniques at art school, , but when I was making the selection for the book I realised that in the more horrific or intense experiences I’d drawn myself sometimes miles away – or high up in the sky – using lots of techniques to communicate a range of experiences. So I found myself asking: where am I in relation to what’s going on? I had done self-portraits before and they were always like looking in a mirror. It surprised me. What was so great about putting together the show at the Wellcome Collection, that’s now touring is how well it is presented – the curating, context and framing. I feel very lucky to have had such an opportunity and have the input of a professional gallery team with experienced curators, as well as colleagues and designers.
ER: It’s interesting that you should say that because the Outside In: National exhibition will be in the main spaces of Pallant House Gallery, displayed to exactly the same spec as all our shows and that sense of presenting the artwork as valuable is very central to the philosophy of Outside In.
BB: I’m really interested in this whole notion of the valuing of work and if it’s good, which I know the Outside In work is – excellent - that it needs to be presented well. It’s that nuance of how it is seen, and subliminally, how people receive it. I think that’s the value of the standards you have set at Pallant. Part of the on-going debate about the whole movement of ‘Outsider Art’ is historically quite fascinating, but work can be presented really badly. I think what Outside In has done over a period of time is to build this sense of value, not just in the quality of the work and people being able to value it themselves, but other people seeing how good the work is. It really does make a significant difference.
ER: You just mentioned the sort of debate around the context of Outsider Art – do you view yourself as an ‘Outsider Artist’? What does the term mean to you?
BB: Well, I want to look at this more in the future and perhaps produce a piece of work about it. I know I’m not an Outsider in those terms, but who defines that? Because I think I’m an ‘insider’ in some senses. I went to Art School and yet I have had the experience of mental illness. It’s interesting – the question of who’s in and who’s out. Since I left Saint Martins I have very consciously tried to be on the edge – I would prefer, as an artist, to not quite fit any definition or category of art form. I want to make work that is between things and so making these drawings fits in my position really of not joining a ‘club’.
ER: I wanted to ask you about language –Channel 4 have recently run a series called ‘Channel 4 goes Mad’ which was quite controversial and you have used the word ‘Mad’ in your own titles so I wondered what you think about those sort of linguistic choices?
BB: I see it as an on-going campaign, really, to create debate and dialogue. I think that as somebody who has been ‘mad’ I can use the word but the language is extremely problematic, people are embarrassed about the language surrounding mental illness. It’s a subject that produces fear and ignorance and prejudice and it’s very easy to scapegoat other people and be wary of them. But I think a series of programmes like that are valuable. They’re always going to offend somebody but it adds to the whole pool of media knowledge. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have had programmes like that. Some of it is bound to not quite work but I get very, very frustrated with the embarrassment. I’m on a kind of lifelong mission to deal with the prejudice and the stigma, because it’s profoundly isolating when people tip toe around the subject and the words.
ER: Finally, could you give a taster of what the audience can expect from the talk that you’re giving at the Gallery, ‘On the Drawing of Breath’?
BB: Well, it’s about the process of making the Diary drawings and how that relates to my journey through being ill, and getting better. The breath aspect refers in part to mindfulness, which I adapted in my own way because I couldn’t do the group version. Drawing can be contemplative and breathing and thinking is an interesting aspect to the process. But really it’s generally sort of an illustrated talk about my experiences and what happened on the way.
All images are taken from the Diary Drawings book by Bobby Baker.