Photo credit: Natasha Clark
Following her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder 18 years ago, Bobby Baker’s new art exhibition at Chats Palace explores her personal relationship between psychosis and self. Natasha Clark shares her thoughts.
One in four of us will suffer some form of mental illness in our lifetimes, including artist Bobby Baker. But, in recent years, the rise in awareness of mental illness has led to the popularisation of art therapy – the creation of art as a form of psychotherapy for people experiencing trauma or illness.
Art therapy has been Bobby’s saviour. But visiting ‘Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me’ exhibition in Chats Palace, Homerton, felt slightly uncomfortable: I faced an empty building, eerie silence and artwork stretched across one long corridor.
Bobby’s story is told through the series of 700 emotive watercolour paintings she did about her journey dealing with mental illness. She drew one picture a day while she was a patient at Pine Street Day Centre – later creating one a week.
The images document the number of the day and the extensive range of emotions she felt. Her experiences of depression, self-harm and periods of psychosis are recorded, alongside captions to explain her thoughts on therapy, psychiatric wards, hospitals and crisis teams. Did it help her deal with her intense feelings?
She says that the art started as a “defiant personal way of coping”, but the paintings soon became her “raison d’être.” The drawings were never meant to be made public. During her diagnosis, Baker has recalled she felt “distressed beyond anything I imagined it possible for a human being to be and remain alive.”
Her paintings range from her crying while practicing yoga to a self-portrait of herself with two faces, one resembling a skull crumbling away from her original one. They are immensely personal, and as each progresses, the viewer gets another snapshot of Bobby’s confusing and emotionally heart-wrenching experience battling her inner demons. The colour is powerful – in particular, her striking use of red for blood and blue for tears. In contrast, the brush strokes are soft and gentle, adding a third dimension.
One of the final images shows her diagnosis with breast cancer, leaving the observer feeling as if her journey is somewhat incomplete, which of course it is. Her battle with mental illness is a constant work in progress.
In the adjacent room, I see another side of Bobby. Her stage shows and public performances and demonstrations have attracted excellent reviews. In the photographs of her at these performances, she is both smiling and solemn, and I feel a cathartic sense of satisfaction at putting a photograph of her face to her astonishingly powerful paintings.
According to the Art Therapy Association, through creatively thinking about the process and medium of art, people like Bobby are able to “develop skills that increase cognitive ability, increase awareness of the self and others, and help them cope with distress.” If they use art therapies, as opposed to conventional talking therapies or medication, they report greater control over their own situation and an improvement in their general wellbeing.
Family Mosaic, the largest mental health support group in Stoke Newington, hosts therapeutic art classes in Homerton, encouraging those suffering with mental illness to express their feelings in a slightly different way. Its patients also had the chance to show and sell their artwork on display last year in the borough.
Linda Noble, 60, suffers from bi-polar disorder and felt great pleasure from seeing her work in a gallery. “It makes me feel like the world is my oyster,” she said. “If I can’t sleep, I get up, get out my paint brushes and suddenly my mood is lifted. Doing art just makes me feel fabulous.”