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Diary Drawings by Bobby Baker Diary Drawings by Bobby Baker
by Dan Glazebrook
2010-06-19 09:21:08
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Ten years ago, my father took me to an exhibition of art made by female in-patients on a psychiatric ward in the early twentieth century. The pieces made a lasting impression on me. The intensity and confusion in the drawings – which were invariably so crowded that there was barely a millimetre of white space left anywhere – was palpable and moving. But the overwhelming impression was one of penned-in creativity bursting into life on the page, an outpouring of imagination made more poignant by the knowledge that many of these artists would spend their whole lives incarcerated, their hopes and ambitions stunted by a stifling institution to which, we now know, many would have been committed for little more than not conforming or even just being upset.

I see Bobby Baker’s new book as the modern update of this story: a story both of suffering from “madness” and of the social labelling and treatment of this madness. As such, it is also the story of society itself: for the true the measure of society is to be found in its treatment of the marginal and vulnerable. Diary Drawings comprises 152 watercolours painted by Baker during the eleven years she spent undergoing treatment for “borderline personality disorder” (“three ill-chosen words [which] simply spell out ‘difficult person’ to all and sundry”), along with Baker’s brief comments on the pictures, and short essays by a literary critic, her daughter and herself.

Baker had referred herself to the Pine Street Day Centre because she was “distressed beyond anything I imagined it possible for a human being to be and remain alive”. The first pictures illustrate this pain in a very physical way: they are dominated by bleeding and crying, and occasional fantasies of violence and suicide; indeed, “in the Day Centre it became a running joke how much red watercolour paint I got through”. There is a feeling of being a stranger in one’s own skin, and the frequency of images of bodily contortion illustrates a discomfort with existence itself. The feeling of disintegration and fragmentation of the self is a recurring theme, the artist depicting herself in one picture as being made of a collapsing pile of blocks, in another being split in half, and in another having her “mask” (face) sliced off. It is clear that, during this time, there were indeed “two Bobbies” - one in which she continued to function, very successfully, both as a performance artist meeting increasing critical acclaim, and as a loving mother and wife – alongside one where she experienced total emotional breakdown and trauma. This divide between her successful career and tragic internal life was exacerbated by success, and, as is revealed through the paintings, the more she “held it together” in her work and family life, the more she fell apart inside. The simplest depiction of this is the self-portrait with a speech bubble exclaiming “I’m great! Everything’s wonderful!”, whilst a cross-section of her head reveals her brain exploding. Yet ultimately, this “mask” of outward achievement and stability is something she clung to, and which ultimately aided her process of recovery. But it would be a long time coming.

By the second “stage” of her illness, her “anger turned to terror”, and the theme increasingly becomes one of control – losing it, craving it, and fearing it at the same time. The paintings illustrate an increasing notion that she is being acted upon against her will - she is squeezed into a cage, test tube, wine glass and saucepan; her thoughts are depicted as an army of razors directed at her brain; she is a “fish on a slab”. Yet, as is so often the case for sufferers of psychiatric disorders, this process of losing control is accompanied by a contrary fear and guilt of having unwarranted influence over others. There seems to be a breakdown between the internal and the external world – your thoughts are not your own, yet they can seep into, and damage, other people’s minds if you are not careful; hence, in one picture, Baker takes to wearing a hat for mental protection.

One begins to wonder how much the feeling of a loss of control is down to the illness or the treatment. As Baker gets deeper both into her own psychological distress and into the mental health ‘system’, she is more and more subjected to a barrage of professionals acting on her, not to mention medication with its inevitable side effects (in her case, an uncontrollable appetite and weight gains). In one picture her crisis team is depicted as a huge eye looking through her letter box; elsewhere they are monitoring her through secret cameras and microphones. Group therapy sessions are obscured by pools of blood or black clouds, “meddling professionals” are shown attacking her head, and at one point she pictures herself as a dissolving mess between two comfortable looking “well-adjusted” professionals. Yet it would be unfair to depict Baker’s experience with the mental health service as wholly negative, as she is at pains to point out in the epilogue. She was indeed “furious about her treatment” in some respects, especially around the medication she was prescribed, the “inconsistent” approach of different services, and the lack of sensitivity shown by some ward staff. But she also writes that the skills she learned in the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy sessions (along with her psychotherapist and some “friendly cleaners”) did help her through the worst. This ambiguity is reflected in the drawings, such as the one where she is shown surrounded by centre staff with their arms folded: reflective of a cold, disapproving attitude, or suggestive that Baker has some empathy with the staff: an understanding that they too are in their own “mental straitjackets”, doing the best they can within the restrictions of the system? Likewise, the professionals’ hands’ depicted attacking her head are redrawn 100 days later as “helping hands”.

What lessons can be learnt from Baker’s experience of suffering, and slowly recovering, from mental illness? Firstly, she was clearly lucky to have, as she put it, “so many good things” in her life, which she clung throughout (family, career). She continued to work during her illness which, although stressful, did maintain some kind of structure and goals in her life – as did her daily cooking for the family. As she put it “I instinctively knew that, if I let go...it would be the beginning of the end.” By doing something for other people, it also “soothed the guilt” she felt. Although the success and intensity of her shows initially contributed to her feelings of fragmentation, later on she began to integrate her public and private life, taking part in an onstage discussion of her condition with Jon Snow and working with Creative Routes: an arts charity run “by the mad, for the mad” as they put it. Of course, the fact that she was not actually sectioned was a blessing: it meant that she was able to combine therapy whilst maintaining some control of her life and continuing to function in the outside world.

Secondly, the drawings themselves – added to daily at first and then weekly, with impressive discipline - was clearly a great source of relief and a vent for overpowering emotions. This was art serving as ark, providing a safe haven from the flood by mapping her own position within it.

Baker attributes getting through the final stages of her illness to “relentless physical work...fury...exercise, healthy diet and writing, writing, writing.” But she also intimates that her diagnosis of cancer may, in a strange way, have also contributed. As she put it, it was “actually a relief to have something you’re not judged for.”


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Emanuel Paparella2010-06-19 12:27:53
One wonders, would Van Gogh have created Starry Night had he not been schizophrenic? There is a strange ratio between creativity and "sanity" but it is certainly not that of those who conform to everything that is considered the accepted common wisdom and/or political correctness of society.


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