Last summer Wellcome Collection exhibited Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings, a series of autobiographical artworks by the artist and performer Bobby Baker, charting 11 years of her experiences of mental illness and treatment by mental health services, an extraordinary personal journey through illness and recovery.
During the course of her illness, Bobby kept her promise to herself to produce at first one watercolour a day, and then one a week. Of over 700 pictures she produced, 158 were exhibited at Wellcome Collection. This selection, together with Bobby’s commentary, have now been published by Profile Books.
Marina Warner’s introduction to the book perfectly captures the experience of looking at these pictures, of following the twists and turns of a unique personal narrative containing astonishing levels of insight and reflection but always told, like a diary, in the present tense:
When I went round the exhibition at the Wellcome in the early summer of 2009, I found the company of strangers viewing it with me had a different quality from the usual visitors to an art gallery; we were all holding our breath. On top of everything, of the madness and the torn ligament, comes breast cancer – chemotherapy sessions are added to the weekly toll of medical interventions. The figure hauling huge, swollen bagfulls of burdens or assailed by a thousand flying barbs has no need to explain anything. Terrible things keep happening; gallows humour can’t hold them all at bay.
So when the last stretch of the drawings pictures her recovery, the lift is intense for the viewer, too: we are carried up into a state of huge, happy light-headed relief; a catharsis of tears: look, she has come through.
You can buy Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings online. The Guardian have an audio slideshow in which Bobby talks about the exhibition at Wellcome Collection, and a film in which Bobby discusses the drawings. You might also be interested in Bobby’s own website, Bobby Bakers’ Daily Life which documents many of the works she produced during the period she was making the drawings, including How to Live, Give Peas a Chance and Pull Yourself Together.